Uber’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year could be about to get even worse. Call it karma for the company that has proudly flouted regulations, passenger safety, and the concerns of its drivers (err, contractors, err partners).
According to a new report by the Guardian, the female victim of an alleged rape by a New Delhi Uber driver plans to sue the company in US court. Making matters worse for the company, the unidentified woman has engaged high profile New York litigator Douglas Wigdor. Wigdor is most well known for recently representing hotel maid and alleged assault victim Nafissatou Diallo and securing a $ 6 million settlement from Dominique Strauss-Kahn. He also previously took on the investment bank Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein in a $ 1.4 billion sexual discrimination, securing an undisclosed settlement for his group of female clients.
There will be two primary questions to be answered before Uber is forced to respond in US courts. The first is whether Wigdor can establish jurisdiction for the case in the US given the fact that that Uber’s policies around driver screening and passenger safety are set in its San Francisco headquarters. The Guardian cites precedent for such a decision, including a case where Pfizer was successfully sued in the US over accusations that it conducted covert drug trials in Nigeria.
The second questions is whether Wigdor can convince US courts that Uber was in some way negligent in misleading its users about the safety of its service and the types of licenses and background checks that its drivers hold.
The case in India is one of a growing number of sexual assault and other criminal complaints against Uber drivers in recent months, including rape and kidnapping accusations pending against one Boston driver and two Chicago drivers.
To Uber’s defense, it’s sadly not uncommon for traditional taxi drivers to stand accused of similar violent behavior. The problem for Uber, and the issue for which the company could find itself paying dearly in the Delhi case, is that it has repeatedly claimed to complete extensive background checks on its drivers, only for that to be proven untrue time and again. The accused driver in India, for example, had previously been jailed for rape and accused of prior passenger assaults.
Given the nature of the incident and Uber’s high profile (not to mention valuation and cash position), a judgement finding it negligent could be expensive indeed. Should Wigdor get his jurisdiction and the case move toward trial it’s a good bet that a (likely undisclosed) settlement would be quickly forthcoming. Then again, even without an admission of guilt, such an outcome would set a dangerous precedent indeed as Uber seeks to manage its liability in the face of global expansion plans.
The Associated Press reported earlier this week that accused Uber driver and alleged rapist Shiv Kumar Yadav was formally charged in a New Delhi court on Tuesday under what’s being described as a fast-track trial. Further, authorities are “still investigating the possibility of criminal charges against the company for allegedly misrepresenting the safety of its service,” according to a local police officer.
Wigdor tells the Guardian:
I can confirm that I have been retained by the young lady who was raped by an Uber driver in Delhi, India, last December. Having met extensively with her and her family while in Delhi, I can only compliment them for their bravery and fortitude during this very difficult time. We will use all of our resources to vindicate my client’s rights, hold those responsible for their actions and ensure that this doesn’t happen again.
Surely that promise will give Uber CEO Travis Kalanick and his ever-supportive investors something to sweat about.