Judge: Uber Drivers Aren’t Employees, But Passengers Can Still Sue In Sexual Assault Case

Image courtesy of JLaw45

Two passengers in different states who were sexually assaulted by Uber drivers are suing the company, and the judge in this case just made an important ruling: drivers’ status as independent contractors rather than employees doesn’t mean that the company can’t be sued for sexual assaults that drivers commit against their passengers.

Yes, this is an actual argument that the company’s attorneys made in the lawsuit. People who receive their employment assignments from an app are, in most cases, legally independent contractors, but that’s something that regulators will need to sort out in the next few years as these services grow.

Uber recently settled a massive California class action lawsuit filed on behalf of drivers, who remain independent contractors instead of employees, but will receive cash settlements from the company if the settlement is approved. Drivers’ status simply hasn’t been challenged yet up to the highest state or federal courts.

The judge didn’t say that Uber drivers are employees, but that if they were employees, these cases would be no different from situations where employees have assaulted people they come in contact with while performing their jobs.

“Assaults of this nature are exactly why customers would expect taxi companies to perform background checks of their drivers,” the judge wrote. “Holding Uber liable could also forward the underlying policy goals of respondeat superior, including prevention of future injuries and assurance of compensation to victims.”

The first plaintiff (called Jane Doe 1, in Massachusetts) had her claim for negligent hiring, supervision, and retention of the driver who assaulted her dismissed. The other driver accused of assault had a 12-year-old domestic violence charge on his record that Uber missed because its background checks only go back 7 years. The driver accused of assaulting Doe 1 was a recent immigrant who had only been in the country for 3 years, and a more extensive background check wouldn’t have turned up any other relevant information.

That claim was dismissed, but the rest of the lawsuit will be allowed to go forward. “The Court applied existing California law to our facts and denied Uber’s attempt to dismiss based on the weak argument that drivers are not employees,” plaintiffs’ attorney Jeanne Christiansen said in a statement e-mailed to Consumerist.

Judge Says Uber Can’t Kill Sexual Harassment Lawsuit On Contract Employee Grounds [Buzzfeed]
ORDER GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART DEFENDANT’S MOTION TO DISMISS (PDF)