ST. PAUL -- Two Minnesota women are among a group of plaintiffs suing the ride-sharing company Lyft alleging drivers sexually assaulted them.
The 20 plaintiffs say they represent only a fraction of individuals assaulted by Lyft drivers since at least 2015, according to the lawsuit filed this week in California. In the suit, they call the company’s response to the “sexual predator crisis” “appallingly inadequate.”
The lawsuit points to the company’s hiring and oversight practices for its drivers, which plaintiffs says fail to include adequate background checks as well as “reasonable driver monitoring procedures.”
It goes on to accuse the company of trying to conceal the scope of the problem.
A spokesperson for Lyft, headquartered in San Francisco, released a statement Thursday detailing steps the company has taken to improve safety for riders, calling the women’s experiences described in the lawsuit unacceptable.
“What these women describe is something no one should ever have to endure. Everyone deserves the ability to move about the world safely, yet women still face disproportionate risks,” the statement from Lyft reads. “We recognize these risks, which is why we are relentless in our work to build safety into every aspect of our work. That means continually investing in new features and policies to protect our riders and drivers.”
The Minnesota women are from Prior Lake and Fridley. The woman from Prior Lake was raped while visiting Los Angeles for a work-training trip last January, the lawsuit says.
She was intoxicated while out at a bar in the Venice area on Jan. 25 and her co-workers called her a Lyft to take her back to her hotel. She fell asleep en route and woke up to find a different Lyft driver at the wheel, according to the lawsuit.
The driver started giving the woman compliments. Nervous and uncomfortable, the woman pretended that she needed to vomit and asked the driver to pull over, hoping she could use the opportunity to get away, according to the lawsuit. The driver obliged her request, but blocked her from escaping and made her get back in the vehicle. Then he raped her, according to the lawsuit.
The Lyft driver eventually drove the woman back to her hotel, and reportedly texted her 14 minutes later saying “it was a real pleasure to meet you.”
Her trip receipt indicated her ride only lasted two minutes and spanned three blocks, which was not reflective of the actual distance and time she was in the vehicle.
The Fridley woman was sexually assaulted during the early morning hours of New Year’s Eve in 2017, according to the lawsuit.
She was celebrating a friend’s birthday and had been drinking. She and a friend decided to order a Lyft to take them to their homes.
After the driver dropped off her friend, he offered to drive the Fridley woman home for free, saying it was near his residence.
He offered her alcohol during the drive, but the woman refused, according to the lawsuit. Shortly thereafter she noticed the driver wasn’t going in the direction of her house.
At one point he started groping her as the woman instructed him to take her home, instead he pulled into a parking lot, made her get into the back seat and raped her, according to the lawsuit. He dropped her off about two to three hours after picking her up.
The woman told her mother and sister about what happened, and police were contacted.
The driver pleaded guilty to fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct this past February and was sentenced to 45 days in jail.
Reached by phone Thursday, the Fridley woman spoke about the impact the assault had on her life, describing ongoing panic attacks and struggles with depression. The Pioneer Press generally doesn’t identify victims of sex crimes.
She also expressed frustration and disappointment with Lyft, which she said made no effort to help her after the assault and never offered her an apology.
She signed on to the lawsuit, she said, to hold the company accountable and to encourage others to be cautious when using ride-sharing apps.
“If you are intoxicated, just make sure that someone knows that you are coming (in a ride-sharing service) or stay on the phone with somebody, have protection,” she continued. “If a conversation gets out of control then call the police immediately.”
The lawsuit calls on the company to conduct background checks on its drivers and to adopt a “zero tolerance” policy for any incidents of misconduct.
It also demands the company use surveillance cameras and mandate that all drivers use them to record their rides and save the footage for at least 72 hours, among other safety enhancements.
An attorney for the plaintiffs insists recording rides would greatly reduce the number of assaults.
Company response ‘window-dressing’
The company said Thursday that it has launched 15 new safety features in recent months, including conducting “daily continuous background monitoring of all … drivers,” and providing ‘in-app emergency assistance to make reporting easier for riders.”
Mike Bomberger, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs, called the safety enhancements “window-dressing and gimmicks” aimed at protecting their public image, not riders.
The company still won’t commit to eliminating drivers from its app who have a history of sexual assaults, nor will publicly disclose a policy promising to report all drivers accused of such crimes to police, he said. He added that the company has also refused to address its request that rides be recorded.
Bomberger’s law firm released a list of safety tips for those using ride sharing services.
Using a voice recording app to record rides.
Becoming familiar with Uber and Lyft’s in-app “panic buttons’ that connect to 911.
Letting someone know when taking a ride-sharing vehicle and sharing the destination and estimated arrival time.
Calling a friend en-route and share ride status so driver knows they are being monitored.
Making sure the name, appearance, vehicle model and license plate match the information sent to the phone by the app and that the driver knows your name, before getting in a vehicle.
Not riding alone, and sitting in the backseat.