Lyft’s ‘woke’ image collides with flurry of sex assault lawsuits

Robert Burnson
Bloomberg News

Lyft Inc.’s image as the “woke” ride-hailing company faces a new challenge from a rash of lawsuits filed by women who claim they were sexually assaulted by drivers summoned to take them home after evenings of partying.

Since Aug. 1, seven female passengers have sued the company in San Francisco, its hometown, and lawyers at the women-led firm representing those riders say there are more complaints to come.

Lyft president and co-founder John Zimmer described the startup to Time magazine in 2017 as “woke” in contrast to larger competitor Uber Technologies Inc., which was in the midst of a sex harassment scandal. But on Monday, an attorney leading the Lyft cases said that isn’t what she’s found while working with scores of female clients who blame the companies for failing to protect them from predatory drivers.

Private negotiations to try to head off litigation have gone better with Uber than with Lyft, lawyer Laurel Simes said, adding that she wants both companies to do more extensive background checks to weed out dangerous drivers and to install video monitors in ride-share vehicles.

“Uber seems to be taking more of a reasonable approach about making changes,” Simes said. “They’re saying, Let’s talk, let’s figure out what we can do.’ Where Lyft seems to be more scorched earth.”

Lyft said it has made it a priority to invest in features giving riders more control, including in-app photos of the driver and vehicle, real-time ride tracking and digital receipts.

Still, the company faces public scrutiny after the Washington Post and NBC’s Today show recently reported on allegations of harassment from female customers. The reports raise questions about Lyft’s ability to differentiate itself from Uber, which has long struggled to fend off criticism that it doesn’t do enough to ensure rides are safe. Both companies went public this year.