SAN FRANCISCO — A new lawsuit against Uber is retraining the spotlight on what has been a persistent issue for the company: rider-driver safety.
Erica Holland filed suit against Uber Thursday claiming that her driver groped and was verbally abusive to her during a June 9 ride in Los Angeles. Her lawyer, Lisa Bloom, who has represented women in cases against President Trump and Bill Cosby, said she is asking for pain and suffering damages as well as a re-evaluation of Uber's safety policies for riders.
After reviewing the lawsuit, Uber said in statement: "What this rider reported is awful. Our Community Guidelines prohibit any sexual conduct and we removed the driver’s access as this matter continues to be reviewed."
Uber said that the driver immediately was blocked from the service after Holland filed a complaint about the ride through the app, and that it will cooperate with Los Angeles police if contacted. The driver disputes the events as described by Holland and had recently passed a background check, the company said.
Complaints about drivers date back from the early days of the ride service, which essentially turned anyone's personal car into a chauffeured vehicle. While Uber did checks on its drivers before admitting them onto the platform, they were never as rigorous as those performed by taxi and limousine services.
But that seemed to be an inherent risk that riders were willing to take in exchange for fast and cheap service, helping Uber explode from a small Bay Area start-up into a global brand now valued at upwards of $70 billion.
Holland's suit comes as Uber is reeling from accusations from former female engineer Susan Fowler, who in February described a sexist work environment where women were penalized for reporting harassment. A variety of scandals have led to a big shake-up at Uber that includes the dismissal of many senior employees including CEO Travis Kalanick.
"Uber has a toxic culture for women inside the company and for women riders on the road," Bloom told USA TODAY. "We know from their sexual harassment scandal that their misogyny runs deep and to the top. They claim they're doing the work to change their company, but if that’s true it should be outwardly focused as well."
Holland's complaint describes a 10 p.m. pickup by a driver named Hamzik, who greeted her in a friendly manner. Since his trunk was full, the driver encouraged Holland to put her dancer's paraphernalia in the back seat. Holland joined the driver up front, but he soon began making aggressive comments and pulled on her hair.
"I told him, 'Stop it,'" Holland told USA TODAY, who said the rest of the ride continued in silence. When she exited the vehicle, the driver "then shot his hand up her loose dress" and made a lewd comment, according to the complaint. Holland complained to Uber through the app later that evening.
She says the company did call her back and left a message asking for more details, but Holland then decided to contact Bloom.
Bloom, the daughter of fabled women's rights attorney Gloria Allred, said at a press conference that was broadcast from her offices Thursday that she will be asking Uber officials to consider a range of changes aimed at improving rider safety, specifically for women.
These include adding a panic button to the app, require dash cams for all drivers, demand that all drivers be fingerprinted and go through FBI checks and be more "transparent about how assaults are going on every day," said Bloom. "Is it hundreds, thousands?"
Uber would not comment on incidents that occur during its rides, but instead shared a list of items that it says contribute to safety during its rides. These include a driver screening process that includes DMV as well as other state and national database checks and a list of guidelines that prohibit abusive behavior.
Ride-sharing dangers do not appear to come just from drivers. In April, a woman in Chicago sued Uber after being attacked by another UberPOOL rider with a knife. Last fall, Taco Bell executive Benjamin Golden was sentenced to jail time after attacking his Uber driver.
One of the most high profile Uber rider cases involved a woman in India who was raped by her driver in 2014. The woman, who now lives in Texas, settled with Uber, but recently retained legal counsel to sue on privacy violation grounds after reports surfaced that Uber Asia Pacific chief Eric Alexander traveled to India shortly after the incident and illegally obtained her medical records.
Alexander then shared those records with Kalanick and other executives, who started a narrative that the rape might have been a set-up engineered by its Indian ride-haiing rival, Ola, according to the complaint. After media site Recode asked the company about Alexander's actions, Uber fired Alexander.
On Thursday, Reuters reported that Uber had retained law firm O'Melveny & Myers to look into how Alexander obtained the woman's records after conflicting accounts from Uber employees. O'Melveny & Myers did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Reuters reported that according to a person familiar with conversations between Kalanick and Alexander, the two executives had discussed obtaining the victim's records because they suspected the rape might have been fabricated by Ola to hinder Uber's progress in India.
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