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June 2, 2018

Uber Agrees to Drop Arbitration Clauses in Rider Assault cases

By Michael H. Joseph

While Arbitration agreements in form contracts have been widely criticized by the public as unwittingly duping them into agreeing to waive their rights to access to the Courts, both Federal and New York State Law favor arbitration. Arbitration is the procedure where an arbitrator, as opposed to a jury, hears disputes and renders a decision. It is a streamlined procedure and has minimal rights to review, with limited grounds, such as arbitrator partiality or the abitrator exceeded his or her powers. Often arbitrators are retired Judges or lawyers, who are perceived to be more conservative, i.e, company friendly. While the Federal Arbitration Act and New York law both heavily favor arbitration, Uber appears to have given in to public pressure and outrage of the perceived unfairness of the arbitration procedures.  The company announced that it will now allow survivors of sexual assault and harassment by its drivers to seek justice however they choose, whether that’s arbitration, mediation or open court.

Previously, Uber’s terms of service barred sexual assault victims—and other potential litigants—from pursuing their claims against Uber in open court, redirecting their cases to private arbitration.  Now, in the U.S., Uber is waiving the requirement for these victims.   They will still be free to opt for arbitration or mediation if they prefer to resolve the matter privately. But there’s a catch! – Survivors cannot band together as a part of a class action lawsuit.   This means that the company’s new rules allow victims to fight their cases in court but only one at a time.   If this approach survives court challenges, it could limit the potential payout for lawyers and damages that Uber could face. Despite the company’s change in position, the move won’t necessarily deter class-action suits.

Congratulations to Uber for choosing not to silence survivors,’’ said Jeanne Christensen, the lawyer representing nine women who allege they’ve been assaulted by Uber drivers. “Uber has made a critical step’’ toward reducing future suffering by women passengers, “but preventing victims from proceeding together, on a class basis, shows that Uber is not fully committed to meaningful change.”  She said this is the “beginning of a longer process needed to meaningfully improve safety.”  She further added, “We are not fooled by Uber’s slick attempt to divert attention away from its true goal of isolating women and shaming them one by one in litigation by talking about lawyers trying to make money in class actions.

Uber has faced questions about how often its driver’s assault or harass passengers.  In April, a news report identified more than 100 Uber drivers accused of sexually assaulting or abusing passengers in the past four years.   On May 15, 2018 the company stated that it will release data on the number of sexual assaults on its service.  Uber expects to publish both total figures and the number of incidents as a percentage of total trips.

“I do expect these numbers to be numbers that people will be rightly upset by and will rightly be able to take concrete action against,” said Uber’s West, a former top Justice Department official. “We think they’re going to be disturbing because it is never easy to report sexual assault.”

The data might not be released until early next year. Uber is working with experts focused on sexual violence to come up with reporting standards.  Our Westchester personal injury lawyers will continue to represent victims of Uber car accidents, assaults and sexual assaults by drivers and look forward to trying these cases in front of juires in the New  York Supreme Court.

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