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Lyft fails to protect passengers against sexual assault and harassment, lawsuit claims

"There have been many sexual assaults much worse than the ones suffered by plaintiffs ... where victims have been attacked and traumatized," the lawsuit alleges.
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The ride-hailing company Lyft has failed to conduct adequate background checks for its drivers, allowing for a pattern that "induces" young, unaccompanied or intoxicated female passengers to use its service and subjects them to harassment and sexual assault, according to a complaint filed Wednesday in California.

The lawsuit, brought by at least 14 unnamed plaintiffs and the latest to put a spotlight on predatory drivers, alleges that as early as 2015, Lyft became aware that drivers were sexually assaulting and raping female customers. Despite complaints made to the company, the suit says, it "continues to hire drivers without performing adequate background checks" or implement "reasonable driver monitoring procedures."

"Unfortunately, there have been many sexual assaults much worse than the ones suffered by plaintiffs as alleged herein, where victims have been attacked and traumatized after they simply contracted with Lyft for a safe ride home," according to the lawsuit, which was filed in Superior Court in San Francisco, where Lyft has its headquarters.

Law firm Estey & Bomberger said that Lyft received almost 100 sexual assault complaints against drivers from 2014 to 2016. The plaintiffs in the firm's suit reside in several states, including California, Illinois, North Carolina, South Carolina and Nevada.

Lyft, the nation's second-largest ride-sharing service, said in a statement to NBC News it holds itself to a higher standard "by designing products and policies to keep out bad actors."

Mary Winfield, the head of Trust & Safety at Lyft, said the experiences described by the victims have "no place in the Lyft community."

"Our commitment is stronger than ever, as we dedicate more resources in our continued effort to ensure our riders and drivers have the safest possible experience," Winfield said, although she did not directly address how Lyft would respond to the lawsuit.

Ride-share companies have been under scrutiny after allegations of assault, theft and kidnapping. Drivers, too, have been targeted with violence.

The latest suit against Lyft says it has not met the minimum reasonable consumer safety expectations, has not adequately warned of the risks involved through its app, and negligently hired drivers without proper reference checks and anti-sexual assault training policies.

The plaintiffs are seeking unspecified damages.

"Lyft's response to this sexual predator crisis amongst Lyft drivers has been appallingly inadequate," according to the complaint.

The company has previously said it continually conducts criminal record checks of its drivers, offers optional anti-harassment training and is planning for further safety improvements. Drivers, however, cannot be forced to complete trainings since they are contractors.

The company also said last month that it would release a transparency report similar to one Uber did last summer, detailing sexual assault reports and other incidents that have been reported by users of the app. Uber last year also rolled out a button on its app in which users can connect directly with police if they feel in danger.

The lawsuit includes a Los Angeles-area woman who said she was raped by a Lyft driver in October 2018 after he told her, "I love you," and took her phone. Lyft failed to tell the woman if the driver was ever fired after she said she filed a police report.

Another plaintiff said during a ride in Charleston, South Carolina, in March that she was asked to pay with money and sexual favors, with the driver telling her "gratuity is for pocket and yummy is for me." She said she jumped out of the car before the ride ended. She added that she filed a police report, but was never told if the driver was fired.

The lawsuit also mirrors a stream of complaints made on social media by women who have said the company has failed to take their concerns seriously.

Earlier this year, Anna Gilchrist tweeted how she was scared for her safety after a Lyft driver asked if her boyfriend was home and then refused to unlock the car door during a ride. The actor and writer from Los Angeles had to pry the door open and jump out, she said. It was not immediately clear if Gilchrist's case is part of the lawsuit.

After calling Lyft about what happened, "it truly felt for all intents and purposes like I was speaking to a robot," Gillcrist told NBC News last month.

Gillcrist's initial tweet had gone viral, and the company later confirmed that the driver had been removed from the platform.

But that's not the action the company has typically taken, said attorney Meghan McCormick, whose San Francisco firm has filed 13 cases against Lyft within the past month.

"These cases are coming to us at a rate of five to 10 per week," McCormick said.

She said the latest suit should serve as further argument that Lyft has failed to install a consistent system to weed out bad drivers and protect passengers.

"I would hope that it becomes evident to Lyft and the public that this is almost an epidemic," McCormick added, "and these are only the cases we know about that are reported."