Lyft is fostering a sexual assault 'epidemic,' victims say

Sexual assaults are reportedly happening daily to Lyft passengers. Lawsuits involving at least 34 women allege the ride-hailing company isn't doing enough to stop them.
Jean-Philippe Tournut/Getty Images

Late on a Monday night in May, Cheyenne Gutierrez realized she needed to stock up on groceries for the week. She walked the few blocks to her local supermarket in Hollywood, California, picked up some food and then ordered a Lyft home. The driver, a middle-aged man with a thick mustache, seemed nice enough. He even offered to help carry her groceries to the house.

As they unloaded the car, Gutierrez asked the driver to drop the bags at her gate while she carried them the rest of the way to her front door. When she wasn't looking and her hands were full, he followed her. 

Gutierrez, 23, relies on ride-hailing services to do her errands and get to work. That's because she's disabled and can't drive. When she was 12, she suffered a brain aneurysm, and more than a dozen surgeries followed. As a result, she lost feeling in her left leg and walks with a severe limp. She believes that's why the Lyft driver tried to sexually assault her.

"I can't run," she said in an interview. "He probably thought I couldn't fight back."

He grabbed her face and tried to kiss her, she said. She shoved him with her elbow and a struggle ensued. Gutierrez managed to knee him in the stomach, push him away and scream "get out." Finally, he ran off.

What happened to Gutierrez is far from isolated. The number of women alleging sexual assault by Lyft drivers has been growing rapidly over the last several months. At least 34 women have either filed or joined lawsuits against the ride-hailing company since August. The victims' lawyers say Lyft hasn't done enough to protect riders from sexual assault, kidnapping and rape. And these suits allege that perpetrators are drawn to Lyft to prey on vulnerable women.

After Uber, Lyft is the second largest ride-hailing service in the country. The 7-year-old company says it has more than 2 million drivers and 30 million riders throughout the US and Canada. With operations in all 50 states, it coordinates millions of rides every day. 

Neither Lyft nor Uber have released data on how many assaults are linked to their drivers, and they've declined to say how many sexual assault lawsuits have been filed against them. But according to lawyers representing victims, the numbers are steep. 

"If the public realized how many women are assaulted daily [by ride-hail drivers] they would be flabbergasted," said Michael Bomberger, a lawyer at Estey Bomberger, which is representing Gutierrez. "These companies have fostered an environment to let these things happen."

Bomberger said he gets at least three calls a day from women who say they were assaulted by ride-hail drivers. He's suing Lyft on behalf of 14 women. Another lawyer who has filed 19 suits against Lyft, Rachel Abrams of Levin Simes Abrams, said her firm is now representing more than 70 women who say they've been sexually assaulted by Lyft drivers. The majority of these alleged assaults took place within the last two years and include everything from kidnapping and battery to sodomy and gang rape.

Both Abrams and Bomberger said they get as many, if not more, calls about women allegedly attacked by Uber drivers. But, they said, Uber has a better record of working with the victims. 

Lyft, on the other hand, has acted like a bully in most of these cases, they said.

"The attitude of Lyft and the attorneys that they've hired to work on their behalf has been very aggressive and, in my opinion, bush league tactics," Bomberger said. "They came at us like they're an 800-pound gorilla and they're gonna smash us."

The lawsuits, which cover incidents in 19 US states, bring up a series of issues victims say they've experienced with Lyft. While the company promotes itself as offering "safe rides," the lawsuits claim Lyft does substandard background checks on drivers and often doesn't deactivate them from the platform after sexual assault allegations. The lawsuits also allege that Lyft tends to stonewall victims -- ignoring, dismissing or downplaying their claims.

The night Gutierrez was attacked, she called Lyft immediately. A company representative told her the driver's behavior was "highly unacceptable" and that they'd "fire him instantly," she recalls.

But, she said, she's been unable to get a response from Lyft ever since. When she filed a police report, she couldn't get any information from Lyft about the driver. Gutierrez said every time she called the company, she was placed on long holds and representatives weren't helpful. And, she said, Lyft wouldn't confirm whether the driver still worked for the company. When CNET asked about her case, a Lyft spokeswoman said the driver was permanently banned after Gutierrez reported the incident.

"Not a day goes by when we aren't thinking about the safety of our platform," the Lyft spokeswoman said. "We continuously invest in new products, policies and features to further strengthen Lyft as we strive to keep drivers and riders safe." 

Gutierrez, Bomberger and Abrams argue, however, that Lyft hasn't done enough.

"We need systemic change," Abrams said. "We can have this not be an epidemic. We can have this not be happening every day to another woman."

'There's no zero tolerance'

In the fall of 2017, Alison Turkos ordered a Lyft ride to her home in Brooklyn after a night out with friends. Instead of heading to her destination three miles away, the driver pointed a gun at her head and drove her across state lines to New Jersey, according to court documents. 

The driver then reportedly stopped at a deserted park where other men were waiting. At least two men raped Turkos, 31, in the back of the car that night, according to court documents. She said she experienced severe pain and bleeding from the attack. She reported what happened to the New York Police Department and a rape kit was done. It found evidence of semen from at least two men.

The police opened an investigation into the incident, which was then transferred to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The FBI is reportedly investigating this alleged attack as a human trafficking case, according to court documents. The FBI declined to comment.

Turkos, who's being represented by Abrams, said she also reported the alleged kidnapping and rape to Lyft within 24 hours of the incident. She wrote a blog post detailing her experience, saying the company replied with a boilerplate response: "We apologize for the inconvenience that you've been through."

According to Turkos, Lyft said it would reimburse her for the detour the driver took and that she wouldn't be paired with him again. She still had to pay $12.81 for the original ride. Turkos said she believes Lyft didn't immediately take the driver off its platform. That's because she saw he still had an active profile on the app, with a different name and picture, several months after the incident. Lyft's spokeswoman said the driver has been permanently banned, but wouldn't say when that happened.

"Lyft was put on notice that [the] Lyft driver was a dangerous, armed, sexual predator," reads Turkos' lawsuit. "Yet it nonetheless allowed [the] Lyft driver to continue driving for Lyft, even allowing him to change his name on the app, endangering countless other passengers who take Lyft with the expectation of a safe ride home."

This isn't the first time Lyft has been blamed for allowing a driver to stay on its platform after a sexual assault complaint. Abrams said she's even had clients matched with the same driver after reporting an incident.

"There's no zero tolerance as you would hope," Abrams said. "It points to a lack of the necessary procedures in place from start to finish."

When asked about Lyft's policy on deactivating drivers after sexual assault allegations, the company spokeswoman said Lyft doesn't tolerate harassment or violence on its platform and such behavior can lead to deactivations.

One of the reasons problematic drivers may end up on Lyft, the lawyers said, is because the company refuses to use FBI fingerprint background checks. Instead, Lyft relies on name-based background checks by a third-party service called Checkr that don't include face-to-face interviews. Uber uses the same service. Most taxi companies use FBI fingerprint checks, which security experts say have more comprehensive database searches and make it difficult for drivers to use false identification. 

Lyft said Checkr's background checks are more thorough than the FBI's because sometimes fingerprinting misses people who've been arrested but not yet scanned. Both Uber and Lyft have also said in the past that fingerprinting is more expensive and takes longer, which can slow down the driver signup process. The cost for Checkr is between $5 and $20 and can be done within a matter of days, whereas FBI fingerprint checks can run around $50 and take up to a month. 

Many Uber and Lyft drivers with sexual assault allegations have clean background checks, according to the companies. But there have been hundreds of drivers with criminal records who passed Checkr's reviews. Colorado regulators found in 2017 that 57 Uber drivers in the state had criminal or motor vehicle offenses. And last month, regulators in Portland, Oregon, found 168 Uber and Lyft drivers with offenses. Two of those Lyft drivers were convicted felons, with one convicted for sexual assault. 

A Checkr spokeswoman acknowledged that "no background check is perfect," but said the commercial databases and local courthouses it searches are complete and up to date. She also said the company follows all laws to ensure its screenings "are as thorough, accurate, and compliant as possible."

Six days after Bomberger filed his lawsuit against Lyft last month, John Zimmer, the ride-hailing company's president, published a blog post titled "Reinforcing our commitment to safety."

In it, he detailed several new safety features Lyft rolled out this year, including continuous background checks and an emergency 911 button in the app. Additionally, starting at the end of this month, all drivers will have to complete a "community safety education" course. The Lyft spokeswoman said it's designed to teach drivers how to read other people's boundaries.

Uber has added those same safety features and more to its app over the past year. Uber's extra precautions include: RideCheck, which sends a push notification to drivers and riders if there's an unexpected long stop along the way; on-trip reporting, which lets riders report an incident before the trip has ended; and a text-to-911 feature that includes location information and the car's make, model and license plate.

lyft-presskit-14

One way Lyft helps riders locate their correct driver is by matching the color on riders' apps with the color on drivers' dashboard displays. 

Lyft

Several of Uber's new safety announcements came one day after The Washington Post published a Sept. 26 report describing how the company's "special investigations unit" allegedly mishandles incidents of rape, kidnapping and assault by its drivers. The story said that, like Lyft, Uber often keeps drivers on its platform after such allegations. Uber told CNET that its team handles a wide spectrum of incidents and that there's no "one size fits all" approach. It said that it reviews each case individually and that serious incidents, like sexual assault, can warrant driver deactivations.

Uber's and Lyft's new in-app safety features are seen by many as a step in the right direction. But, victims say, they don't keep predators off these platforms and they don't help when riders are asleep, intoxicated or can't get to their phones

US Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, wrote letters to Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi and Lyft CEO Logan Green on Sept. 25 addressing the "deeply disturbing reports of sexual assault and harassment." He called on the country's largest ride-hailing companies to commit to fingerprint background checks for drivers and to be transparent in how they investigate sexual assault allegations. Both Uber and Lyft said they'll respond to the senator by the end of the month.

"I also hope that it does not take another rash of lawsuits and media investigations for you to take affirmative steps to ensure rider safety," Blumenthal wrote in his letter to Lyft. 

Going dark

In July, a silver Mitsubishi Lancer with a Lyft sticker on its windshield pulled into an empty parking spot in front of an apartment complex in Coral Springs, Florida. It was 5:35 a.m. on a Saturday. After sitting for several seconds, the driver got out, opened the back door and slid into the back seat. An intoxicated 22-year-old woman was half asleep there. He climbed on top of her. 

The woman had been on a double date earlier that night, which ended in bar hopping. She'd had six or seven drinks, so her date ordered her a Lyft home. He walked her to the car and reportedly told the ride-hail driver to make sure she got home safely.

The opposite happened.

A surveillance camera affixed to the apartment complex's wall mostly captured what happened in the backseat of the Mitsubishi, according to the Coral Springs Police Department. The woman's name hasn't been released to the public. But the police located the driver in September and arrested him on a charge of attempted sexual battery, according to an arrest warrant. 

"This detective believes that the defendant's pattern of behavior establishes that he is predatory in nature towards younger females and utilizing his position as a ride-share driver to obtain victims," reads the arrest warrant.

The woman was able to escape the vehicle, according to police, but not before the Lyft driver pulled down his shorts, exposed himself and grabbed at her genitals.

The detective on the case was able to piece the story together using the camera footage, statements from the woman and her date, and information from Lyft after he served the ride-hailing company with a subpoena. The Lyft spokeswoman said the driver has since been banned from the platform.

Lyft said it worked with the police on this incident. But Bomberger and Abrams said that's not always the case. With the majority of their clients, they said, the company has delayed and restricted correspondence with police until a subpoena or court order is issued.

Additionally, both Lyft and Uber don't automatically report all sexual assault claims they receive to the police. They also don't share those claims with each other (although Uber said it'd be supportive of such a policy). Bomberger said sharing this information with each other and with the police could deter predators from using the platforms to find victims.

"There's a reason why there's mandatory reporting for sexual assaults," Bomberger said. "Because it works."

Since Uber and Lyft haven't released data on how many assaults happen with their drivers, it's hard to know the full scope of the problem.

In May 2018, a CNN investigation found more than 120 Uber and Lyft drivers allegedly sexually assaulted passengers. Afterward, both companies announced that they'd publish "safety transparency reports," which would include data on alleged assaults. But 17 months later, neither company has provided these numbers. Uber said it's still committed to publishing the data but has no set release date. Lyft declined to comment on its report.

Bomberger and Abrams said this information is crucial for understanding how to avoid further incidents. A goal of their lawsuits is to get Uber and Lyft to do more to prevent assaults. Their suggestions include mandatory fingerprint background checks, face-to-face interviews with drivers and dashboard cameras to record every ride. They also said it's critical to have a zero-tolerance policy for sexual misconduct.

As for Gutierrez, she said she still lives in fear.

She quit using Lyft since that incident but still uses Uber because it's pretty much her only option for getting around. Neither company lets passengers request a female driver, so whenever Gutierrez is matched with a male driver she usually cancels the ride until she gets a female. One reason for this is because she doesn't know if the man who allegedly attacked her also drives for Uber.

"To this day, no one except for Lyft knows who he is," Gutierrez said. "I want him off the streets, because he could do this to other women."

Originally published Oct. 24.
Update, Oct. 28:
 Adds comment from Checkr spokeswoman. 
Correction, Oct. 28 at 5:35 p.m.: To remove reference of Checkr as the provider of continuous backgrounds checks for Lyft.