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Uber Technologies Inc. said Tuesday that it will let victims of sexual assault and harassment sue the company in court and plans to release data on sexual violence and other dangerous incidents that occur on its ride-hailing service.

Previously, Uber's terms of service barred sexual-assault victims -- and other potential litigants -- from pursuing their claims against Uber in open court, redirecting their cases to private arbitration. Now, in the U.S., Uber is waiving the requirement for these victims. They will still be free to opt for arbitration or mediation if they prefer to resolve the matter privately.

Uber will still seek to enforce other types of litigants to negotiate in private. And like other complainants, sexual-assault victims will continue to be barred by the terms of service from banding together to file class-action lawsuits against the company.

The move comes during the #MeToo movement, in which women have come forward with accounts of sexual harassment, assault and workplace mistreatment. Uber faced a reckoning of its own last year after former software engineer Susan Fowler wrote a poignant blog post documenting harassment she faced there.

"There's no question that Uber has a unique relationship to the issue of sexual harassment in particular because of Susan Fowler's blog," said Tony West, Uber's chief legal officer. West and chief executive Dara Khosrowshahi took over late last year and have attempted to turn the company around. "This is an issue that is much, much, much bigger than Uber." Rival Lyft Inc. announced similar changes on Tuesday.

Fourteen women are attempting to sue, alleging sexual assaults and harassment they faced from drivers. The women, represented by law firm Wigdor LLP, made a direct appeal to Uber's board in a letter last month, asking directors to waive the company's mandatory arbitration and anti-class action provisions. Uber board member Arianna Huffington told Bloomberg TV this month that the Uber board was weighing how to respond.

The company's new rules allow victims to fight their cases in court but only one at a time. If this approach survives court challenges, it could limit the potential payout for lawyers and damages that Uber could face. Despite the company's change in position, the move won't necessarily deter class-action suits.

"Congratulations to Uber for choosing not to silence survivors," said Jeanne Christensen, a partner at Wigdor. "Uber has made a critical step" toward reducing future suffering by passengers, "but preventing victims from proceeding together, on a class basis, shows that Uber is not fully committed to meaningful change." She said this is the "beginning of a longer process needed to meaningfully improve safety."

Uber has faced questions about how often its drivers assault or harass passengers. In April, a CNN investigation identified more than 100 Uber drivers accused of sexually assaulting or abusing passengers in the past four years. The company said Tuesday that it will release data on the number of sexual assaults committed on its service. Uber expects to publish both total figures and the number of incidents as a percentage of total trips.

"I do expect these numbers to be numbers that people will be rightly upset by and will rightly be able to take concrete action against," said Uber's West, a former top Justice Department official. "We think they're going to be disturbing because it is never easy to report sexual assault."

The data might not be released until early next year. Uber is working with experts focused on sexual violence to come up with reporting standards.

"There is not much precedent for this," said Kristen Houser, chief public affairs officer at Raliance, a sexual-assault prevention group that's working with Uber. "It is difficult even to get companies to say the words sexual assault or rape, let alone incorporate them into the culture and the priorities of the company."

Also Tuesday, a state judge in San Francisco refused to let Uber Technologies Inc. off the hook over a high school student's claims that her driver made lewd comments to her -- marking another rejection of the company's argument that it isn't responsible for drivers' actions.

Tuesday's ruling allowing the 16-year-old's assault and false-imprisonment claims to proceed adds to the ride-hailing giant's legal vulnerability over driver misconduct with passengers.

In finding sufficient evidence that the driver was "acting in the course and scope" of his employment with Uber, the judge relied in part on a recent decision by California's highest court that threatens to upend the gig economy's business model by requiring many more workers to be treated as employees. Uber's lawyer tried to withdraw the company's request for dismissal of the teen's claims so that the decision wouldn't be put on the books, but the judge wouldn't allow it at a hearing Tuesday.

The ruling isn't the first to reject the company's assertion that it can't be blamed for assaults by drivers, whom it classifies as contractors rather than employees. A federal judge in May 2016 reached the same conclusion early in a case filed by two women who alleged they'd been assaulted in East Coast cities. Uber later reached a confidential settlement with the women.

Information for this article was contributed by Robert Burnson of Bloomberg News.

Business on 05/16/2018

Print Headline: Uber says it'll face sex suits in court

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