Can one woman change the way Uber operates?

After allegedly being raped by her Uber driver in Delhi, an Indian woman sues the US-based ride-hailing service on its home turf. She's asking Uber to "overhaul" its safety measures around the world.

Dara Kerr Former senior reporter
Dara Kerr was a senior reporter for CNET covering the on-demand economy and tech culture. She grew up in Colorado, went to school in New York City and can never remember how to pronounce gif.
Dara Kerr
7 min read

A candlelight vigil in Delhi, India, last December over the alleged rape of a female passenger by her Uber driver. A US lawsuit filed against Uber by the passenger seeks to compel the company to strengthen its safety procedures worldwide.
A candlelight vigil in Delhi, India, last December over the alleged rape of a female passenger by her Uber driver. A US lawsuit filed against Uber by the passenger seeks to compel the company to strengthen its safety procedures worldwide. Getty Images

The night of December 5, 2014, an Indian woman in her mid-20s sent an email to Uber support: I was raped.

She'd just been deposited on a street corner on the outskirts of Delhi, India, bleeding, bruised and covered in bite marks, according to her court documents. Her assailant, she claims, was a man named Shiv Kumar Yadav, 32, an Uber driver she'd hired to take her home after she'd had dinner with a friend.

The drive normally takes about an hour, according to her court statement, so she fell asleep as they sped through the night. She woke, she said, to find Yadav on top of her with his hands around her neck, threatening to kill her if she didn't stop shouting. He then beat, raped and sodomized her.

According to Delhi police, Yadav confessed to the crime one week later during interrogations. Criminal proceedings are currently under way.

The attack against the woman, who has chosen to keep her name confidential, garnered international attention and prompted officials in Delhi to ban Uber, which had offered its service there for 15 months. Yadav was a known sex offender, Delhi police said, but according to the woman's court documents, his background hadn't been checked by Uber.

In a statement posted on Uber's website a day after the incident, CEO Travis Kalanick called the crime "horrific" and "despicable."

"We will do everything, I repeat, everything to help bring this perpetrator to justice and to support the victim and her family in her recovery," Kalanick said.

Several weeks after the attack, Uber added new safety features to its service in India, including a panic button for its app and background checks for drivers. Besides Delhi, Uber also operates in Bangalore, Hyderabad, Chennai and Mumbai, among other Indian cities. The woman, who works at a finance company, said Uber never consulted her about better safety standards, as she had requested, according to her court documents.

On January 29, she filed a lawsuit against Uber in the US alleging the company's "negligence" and "fraud" led to her sexual assault. The case is filed in the Northern District Court of California in San Francisco, where Uber is headquartered.

Her lawsuit is unusual in its scope: She wants Uber to change its practices and policies in every country it operates. She's also asking for unspecified damages and for Uber to "overhaul" its safety measures. The woman detailed 13 separate safety measures she believes the company should adopt, including requiring drivers to install "tamper-proof" video cameras in their

that would trigger an alarm if disabled.

If successful, the lawsuit could have sweeping implications for Uber.

"To prevent what happened to our client from happening to others, Uber needs to focus more on safety measures, rather than its bottom line," said her attorney, Douglas Wigdor of Wigdor LLP. Wigdor also represented the hotel maid who brought sexual assault charges against Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former chief of the International Monetary Fund. That suit settled in 2012 for an unspecified amount.

Uber, which pairs passengers with drivers via its smartphone app, is one of the highest valued venture-backed companies in the world, at $41.2 billion. Founded in 2009, the company now operates in 56 countries.

But that expansion has come at a price. While Uber says safety is its "No. 1 priority," the company has also battled government regulators in the US and Europe who claim Uber misleads customers about the actual safety of its service. Uber drivers reportedly have been involved in dozens of instances of alleged assault, rape and kidnapping.

"All of this could have been prevented, and it wasn't," said Wigdor. "Uber now needs to understand there is a price to pay for that."

Uber doesn't comment on ongoing litigation, a company spokeswoman said.

Background checks

When the woman sent her email to Uber around midnight on December 5, she also contacted the Delhi police. Within hours, a manhunt was launched to find Yadav. The police had his name and license plate number, but not his home address or phone number. They contacted Uber in hopes that the company would have the information, as well as possible GPS data from his car or smartphone, according to court documents Wigdor filed.

Those documents detail what he and his client claim to be the facts of the case: Uber employees in the Delhi office told police the information they needed was stored in the company's US office. Nearly 12 hours later, the police made contact with that office and received the information they asked for -- but there was a hitch. Uber didn't have Yadav's true address or mobile number, his car wasn't "properly equipped" with a GPS system and his smartphone GPS wasn't working because he'd turned it off.

Rape suspect Shiv Kumar Yadav in police custody in Delhi. Getty Images

Two days later, on December 7, police finally tracked down Yadav. He was hiding in his hometown -- a rural village about 100 miles from Delhi -- about to make a run for Nepal, according to Delhi police.

Rape is prevalent in India -- every day 93 women report being sexually assaulted, according to the country's National Crime Records Bureau. The number of unreported rapes is thought to be even higher. Indian authorities require all taxi and ride-hailing drivers in Delhi to have two permits that prove their backgrounds have been checked: a Character Certificate and a Security Badge.

However, these documents are reportedly easy to forge, according to Wigdor's court documents, which is why many taxi companies do additional background checks. When Uber added Yadav as a driver, he allegedly had a forged Character Certificate and never got a Security Badge, according to Delhi police.

Uber says in its court documents, however, that Yadav "ran a professional driving business" and "had been a taxi driver for several years."

A few weeks after being banned in Delhi, Uber restarted service there because, it said, it had begun the process of getting a permit from city officials. Uber is currently disregarding the ban, which remains in effect.

In his statement after the attack, Uber's Kalanick promised to "work with the government to establish clear background checks." In January, Uber said it would conduct its own background checks on India drivers. It also said it would begin verifying Character Certificates with police and work to detect fraudulent driver and vehicle permits.

The rape victim wants Uber to do more. In her 36-page complaint, she asks the company to "promptly implement" those 13 safety measures worldwide.

Uber is already taking a few of those measures in various countries, like requiring that driver photos be displayed in the app and barring registered sex offenders from becoming drivers. Other measures would be new. These include 24-hour customer support hotlines in all cities in which it operates; requiring all drivers to install GPS tracking systems on their cars that would set off an alarm if deactivated; and giving passengers the option to request a female driver.

Does this case hold water?

Criminal proceedings against Yadav began immediately after police apprehended him in December. The case is ongoing.

The civil lawsuit against Uber in the US is not as straightforward.

Foreigners often sue US companies for things that happen overseas -- car manufacturers have been sued for accidents, and oil companies have been taken to court for harming the environment. But it's rare for one foreign national to sue a US company to get it to change its policies in every country it operates in.

Some legal experts believe the case will be a tough win. "I would think that a single individual plaintiff from a single individual country would not have standing to get relief of that sort," said Georgene Vairo, a law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

Uber doesn't dispute that the woman was sexually assaulted, but it says a US court isn't the appropriate venue for the lawsuit. Earlier this month, the company filed a motion to have the case dismissed.

US law can't "govern a dispute involving an alleged wrong committed by one Indian citizen against another Indian citizen, in India," Uber's motion reads. The ride-hailing service argues the correct venue would be India or the Netherlands. Uber has a subsidiary in the Netherlands called Uber BV, which oversees much of the company's international operations.

"Uber US does not contract with India-based drivers or riders," reads Uber's motion to dismiss, "rather, those riders and drivers explicitly contract with Dutch company Uber BV." In addition, "the key witnesses and events are located overseas, as are the key parties."

It's in Uber's interest to have this case thrown out in the US, Loyola law professor Vairo explained, "they don't want everybody around the world to feel like they can bring lawsuits here anytime anything goes wrong."

Some legal experts believe, however, that if Wigdor can prove Uber's policies and practices led to the woman's rape, then the US court might take her case.

"To the extent that the Uber brand name induces a sense of security and this is used as a business strategy, a proper legal regime should allow the Indian woman's strategy to succeed," said Sienho Yee, a lawyer who specializes in international law and international dispute settlements.

And that is exactly what the woman and her attorney are counting on.

"At the end of the day, everything is really controlled from California," Wigdor said. "All of their safety protocol and marketing protocol originates in California and trickles down to the rest of the world."