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Uber® and Lyft® were once the small guys, taking on the giant taxi cab industry. Now they’ve grown into big targets themselves. They were the two most highly valued tech companies to go public in 2019, but since their IPOs it has been rough going. Their stocks have been unqualified flops, with both hitting all-time lows this month. For Lyft, that may not even be the worst news it faced in September. It has also been hit with grave legal allegations from a small but highly successful San Diego personal injury firm.
The troubled road for ride-hailing services has included a number of legal potholes in California, the state where both are based. The one that has gotten the most attention is a piece of California legislation that would treat all “gig economy” workers as employees rather than independent contractors. That classification could entitle drivers to improved pay, reimbursement of driving expenses, and most importantly, the right to organize and bargain collectively. The bill has passed the California Assembly and Senate, and appears all but guaranteed to become law. (Uber has already said that even if the law is enacted, it will still treat drivers as independent contractors. Chief legal officer Tony West noted that the company is “no stranger to legal battles.”)
But Lyft now faces a more human and troubling legal challenge. In two different sets of cases, it faces allegations that it has not done enough to prevent sexual assaults committed by drivers against passengers. First, in early September, more than a dozen women with individual suits against Lyft asked that their suits be joined in a coordinated action in California state court. That request was made by their attorney, Rachel Adams, whose partner told NPR® that their firm has heard from more than 150 female victims.
The same day Adams made her request, Lyft was hit with a 40-page mass tort complaint by 14 unnamed women. The lawsuit claims that Lyft puts the safety of passengers at risk by not performing adequate background checks, fingerprinting drivers, or monitoring them through video recordings or other means. The plaintiffs allege that Lyft regularly receives sexual assault complaints against its drivers, but has failed to report them to police. “Lyft has made a concerted effort in the media, in litigation and in criminal cases to hide and conceal the true extent of sexual assaults that occur in their vehicles,” the suit says.
The lawsuits may not have been possible were it not for a commitment that Lyft made last year. Previously, Lyft forced all legal claims made against them into private arbitration. Uber did the same. But in May of 2018, the ride-sharing services announced they would no longer do so for individual claims of sexual assault or harassment against drivers. Uber made the change first, followed hours later by Lyft. Uber was spurred to do so by a lawsuit in which nine women claimed they had been sexually assaulted by drivers. They brought claims of civil assault and battery, and also sued Uber on claims of false advertising and fraud for promising safe transportation.
The Firm Behind the Lyft Case
The mass tort action was filed by San Diego’s Estey & Bomberger, LLP, which boasts significant results in related actions. According to the firm’s website, founding partners Stephen Estey and Michael Bomberger became friends at California Western School of Law. In 1994, two years after their graduation, they set up their own shop. They have since added an associate, Mary Bajo, while racking up a long list of eight-figure verdicts and settlements. Bomberger claims that his $20 million settlement for a newborn who suffered a brain injury is the largest medical malpractice settlement in California history.
Estey & Bomberger’s name partners have particular expertise that would seem to position them well to handle the Lyft litigation. Stephen Estey “specializes particularly in institutional child sexual abuse cases.” His first case in that area resulted in a $30 million verdict for his client. He has also secured a $60 million judgment for three survivors of sexual abuse by a Tae Kwon Do coach, a $23 million verdict for a student who suffered sexual abuse by a former teacher, and a $15 million in a separate case involving allegations of sex abuse by a teacher.
Meanwhile, Estey’s partner Mike Bomberger has carved out a niche as an authority on liability arising from various forms of transportation. As a biker who rides several hundred miles a week, he has significant experience with bike-related cases, which you can see it on the firm’s standalone cycling law website. He has handled cases involving pedestrian injuries, and the firm has positioned itself as an authority on scooter-related actions—a growing area of work for personal injury firms in cities where the modern form of transport is permitted, like Estey & Bomberger’s native San Diego. He has given quotes to local media on dangerous intersections for pedestrians, bike safety, and a 2017 criminal conviction of an Uber driver for sexual assault.
Questioned by Law360® about the present case, Bomberger said Lyft could have made “simple changes” to its app to protect passengers. “Adding an automatic audio and video recording to rides would prevent future assaults,” he said. “But they have chosen not to.”
If Estey & Bomberger prevails in the case, it will be the firm’s highest-profile recovery yet. The case is pending in California Superior Court (County of San Francisco), under the name Jane Roe et al. v. Lyft Inc. et al.
Uber is a registered trademark of Uber Technologies, Inc. Lyft is a registered trademark of Lyft, Inc. NPR is a registered trademark of National Public Radio, Inc. Law360 is a registered trademark of Portfolio Media, Inc. Other products or services may be trademarks or registered trademarks of their respective companies.
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