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‘That Short Trip Took A Piece Of My Life Away’: Uber And Lyft’s Reckoning With Sexual Assault Falls Short, Survivors Say
Thousands of unsuspecting rideshare passengers and drivers are sexually assaulted in cities across the U.S. each year. Uber is banking on big data to solve the problem — but some victims are skeptical.
Erin Marshall was getting ready to pack it in after a night of bar-hopping in Tucson, Arizona. It was well past midnight and the Army veteran and freelance writer was admittedly “really drunk.”
Around 2 a.m., she hailed a Lyft. Moments later, her phone chimed with a notification: “Joshua,” her driver, would be arriving momentarily. Her ride soon pulled up outside the front door of the karaoke bar. She said goodbye to her friends and stepped into the stranger’s car.
“I thought I was doing the safe, good thing, which was not driving home drunk,” Marshall told Oxygen.com.
At first, the driver, a slender man in his mid-20s, seemed “friendly” and “totally normal.”
“He smiled a lot. … He was extremely disarming and sweet, even,” Marshall recalled. “I didn’t really have a bad vibe.”
The driver even stopped at a gas station so Marshall could grab cigarettes, she said. But then things took a sinister turn. Marshall said she passed out — and later awoke to a camera flash.
“I remember the flash going off in the dark car, him taking photos of the front seat,” she recalled.
The vehicle had come to a stop. Marshall then realized her shirt had been pulled up and her breasts were exposed.
“I remember trying to cover myself up and saying, ‘No,’” she said. “From that point on, it does become really hazy for me.”
The Lyft driver then climbed into the back seat of the vehicle. He allegedly groped, molested, and raped her, according to a civil complaint filed in December in San Francisco by 19 women against Lyft obtained by Oxygen.com.
“Instead of fighting back, I just froze,” Marshall said. “I started saying, ‘I don’t consent to this, I’m too intoxicated. … Please stop.’”
“That’s when I realized I had to get out of the car,” she said. “I started opening the passenger door and I told him I was going to throw myself out of the vehicle if he didn’t take me home.”
At 3:08 a.m., Marshall arrived at her house in northwest Tucson. Her then-husband drove her to the hospital, where she underwent a rape exam. She notified Lyft and filed a police report the same day.
The driver was later identified as Joshua Kyam Quaid. He was charged with felony sexual assault and kidnapping, according to the civil complaint. In September 2019, he pleaded guilty to amended charges of unlawful imprisonment committed for the purpose of sexual motivation, additional court documents show.
Quaid was sentenced to 18 months probation.
“I never heard from Lyft again,” Marshall said. “There was no follow up, not even like a check-in. There was no apology. They didn’t seem shocked. … They just dismissed it.”
Lyft confirmed the driver was banned from the company.
While Lyft didn’t discuss the details of Marshall’s case, Dana Davis, a spokesperson for Lyft, told Oxygen.com in a statement: “What has been described is something no one should ever have to endure. Everyone deserves the ability to move about the world safely, yet women still face disproportionate risks.”
Jade Nardi, a Connecticut-based respiratory therapist, also shared a disturbing alleged encounter with a Lyft driver last summer.
On July 10, 2019, Nardi, 26, ordered a Lyft home after celebrating her birthday at an oyster bar in Providence, Rhode Island. Nardi said her driver, identified by authorities as Juan Carlos Rodriguez Delossanto, began asking her a series of personal questions before she noticed that the address on his navigation system didn’t match her home, according to a police incident report obtained by Oxygen.com.
They ended up in a deserted parking lot, when Nardi said Delossanto stopped the vehicle, and shut off the lights, according to the police report.
“All of a sudden I look up and I’m now in an abandoned industrial lot and my stomach drops. … I’m feeling like I’m probably going to get molested or raped,” Nardi told Oxygen.com.
Nardi said Delossanto “interrogated” her and demanded she have dinner with him at a nearby IHOP. She rejected his advances and demanded he take her home.
“I knew I was probably in pretty deep trouble, I didn’t know where I was going,” she said. “Where you’re in that situation you kind of just freeze up.”
Delossanto eventually dropped Nardi off near her home. Nardi dove out of the SUV, hid in the bushes of a neighbor’s house, and cried, she said.
When questioned by authorities, Delossanto said he thought Nardi was having a difficult night and he was trying to console her by offering her a meal, according to the police report. He ultimately wasn’t charged because he didn’t “physically restrain” Nardi, police said.
When Nardi notified Lyft of the incident, she said, “their response was, ‘We’re sorry for the inconvenient ride — we hope your next ride is better.’ They really didn’t offer any support, didn’t offer any next steps, what they would do on their end, did not offer any insight into any consequences for the driver.”
Delossanto was “deactivated” from the app, the rideshare company confirmed to Oxygen.com.
Nardi described Lyft’s handling of the situation as “pitiful.”
“It made me feel insignificant as a human being,” she said.
“Being in the back of a car with a stranger is one of the most dangerous places that you can find yourself,” attorney Bryant Greening, who co-founded Legal Rideshare, a law firm that focuses its practice on companies like Uber and Lyft as well as e-scooter and bikeshare companies, told Oxygen.com. “When we were young, our parents all told us, ‘Never get in a car with a stranger’ — and now it’s something that we all do, almost every day.”
Women, particularly millennials, who opt to travel home alone at night after consuming alcohol, are especially vulnerable.
In 2018, California Uber driver Alfonso Alarcon-Nunez was charged with sexually assaulting four women passengers he’d picked up from bars. His alleged victims were predominantly college students. He has pleaded not guilty and his case is set to go to trial in March, according to prosecutors.
“Mr. Alarcon-Nunez has no criminal history even remotely related to the type of allegations he faces in this matter, and it is shocking to him that he finds himself in this quandary. If convicted, Mr. Alarcon-Nunez may spend the rest of his life in prison,” Alarcon-Nunez’s attorney, Earl Conaway said.
The same year, former Lyft driver Daniel Kifle, was accused of kidnapping and sexually assaulting multiple women he’d picked up outside drinking establishments in Austin, Texas, according to court documents obtained by Oxygen.com. Kifle has pleaded not guilty and scheduled to face trial this month.
“These drivers are targeting individuals who are either alone and those that are intoxicated," Olivia Zecchini, a sexual assault victim advocate, told Oxygen.com. “We’re having this company that tells us this is a smart, safe option to get you home and everyone believes it.”
Rideshare companies have faced intense scrutiny over safety and security issues — from flimsy driver screenings to mass data breaches — since the dawn of the technology.
Despite the missteps, both rideshare juggernauts have made a series of strides to address the growing safety and security concerns.
Both Uber and Lyft conduct annual background checks of drivers. They also use automated technology to continuously monitor for criminal infractions and dangerous driving records in between yearly screenings.
Uber, for example, deactivated more than 40,000 drivers across the country after enabling the automated surveillance, a spokesperson said. The company’s “emergency button” feature also allows riders to electronically share trip details, car description and license plate number, as well as GPS location with 911 dispatchers if they’re in danger.
Lyft currently offers a similar feature, Emergency Help, to all customers and drivers in the U.S. in partnership with ADT Security Services.
Yet dozens of rideshare drivers have been accused of sexual assault in recent years.
“Lyft and Uber must do more to protect their riders from sexual assault and harassment,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) told Oxygen.com. “The few steps they’ve taken to boost safety have been minimal and came far too late for thousands of victims.”
Blumenthal, an outspoken critic of Lyft and Uber, called for more expansive security measures such as universal fingerprinting and cross-sharing data on banned drivers with other ride-hailing companies.
“Their continued dismissive attitude toward the users of their platforms who have experienced assault and harassment is inexcusable — and puts many others in harm’s way,” he said.
Indeed, both rideshare giants have also faced a number of lawsuits for allegedly mishandling reports of sexual assault involving predatory drivers — and in some cases are accused of “silencing” rape victims altogether.
In December, 19 women alleging they’d been sexually assaulted by Lyft drivers filed a lawsuit against the rideshare company in San Francisco. Lyft is accused of working to “hide and conceal” or ignore the victims’ complaints, according to court documents obtained by Oxygen.com.
Two days after Lyft was slapped with the sprawling suit, Uber publicly unveiled a safety report containing sexual assault statistics that were logged over the course of billions of trips.
In 2018, the app recorded 3,045 instances of sexual assault involving passengers and drivers, ranging from unwanted touching or kissing to rape and attempted rape, according to Uber’s U.S. Safety Report. The company catalogued 2,936 sexual assaults in 2017.
Over two years — and a combined 2.3 billion trips — riders and drivers reported different types of sexual assault at approximately the same rate, according to the report. In cases of rape, however, the victim was the rider 92 percent of times, Uber said. The chance of being raped while ridesharing was one in 5 million, the company estimated. Instances of riders sexually assaulting or attacking drivers also occur.
“Secrecy doesn’t make anyone safer,” a spokesperson for Uber told Oxygen.com. “We think it’s important for companies to be transparent about these types of issues so that we can work together and have consistent data so we can share best practices and ultimately make the industry safer for everyone.”
A number of anti-sexual violence advocates applauded Uber’s release of the statistics as a crucial first step in combatting rideshare sexual assault.
“Uber starting the conversation itself is significant,” Allison Randall, vice president for policy and emerging issues at the National Network to End Domestic Violence, told Oxygen.com. “This is the first time a company has been willing to share detailed information about sexual assault publicly.
Randall, who sits on Uber’s U.S. Safety Advisory Board, called the data’s release “groundbreaking.”
“We can’t solve a problem without knowing what it is,” Randall explained. “The numbers help a company understand the types of assaults happening, which can then guide next steps.”
However, even Uber's efforts to compile data on assaults has put them at odds with state regulators. In December, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) fined the company $59 million for refusing to share more specific information about each assault, including names and addresses of victims, which they'd originally requested in January 2020. Uber appealed the decision in January, arguing it "risks re-traumatizing survivors and could set back corporate transparency efforts for years. This decision, if finalized, will surely send a chilling message to companies that are seeking to be more transparent and engage on this widespread societal issue."
RAINN, one of the nation's largest nonprofit advocacy groups for sexual assault survivors, has also appealed the CPUC's ruling against Uber.
"Companies should be rewarded, not penalized, for their work to shine a light on the societal pervasiveness of sexual violence and for their commitment to honor survivors’ agency in determining when, how, and with whom they share their personal information and experiences," RAINN said in a statement last month.
Lyft confirmed they, too, are currently working on compiling and publishing data surrounding sexual assaults, but a spokesperson for the company told Oxygen.com that "the CPUC's recent actions put victims' privacy at risk and must be resolved before we will release our safety report."
"We are relentless in our work to build safety into every aspect of what we do. We know this work is never done, which is why we continue to invest in new features, products and policies to help protect our riders and drivers and make Lyft an even safer platform for our community," Dana Davis, a spokesperson for Lyft, previously told Oxygen.com.
But even these measures aimed at transparency, are too little, too late for some sexual assault survivors whose lives have been permanently scarred by predatory rideshare drivers.
“[It] changed my life forever — and I can’t get my life back now,” Marshall, the Arizona Army veteran, said.
Marshall spiraled into depression and began “drinking dangerously” after her 2018 ride. She was hospitalized for a number of suicide attempts. The young mother was later diagnosed with bi-polar disorder and post-traumatic stress syndrome.
“It kind of set me into a downward spiral,” Marshall described.
Marshall, now 35 has been sober for nearly two years. She regularly attends behavioral therapy sessions, but still suffers from anxiety and “severe” intimacy issues, she said. Marshall still rideshares occasionally, but never alone — and avoids Lyft if possible.
“I don’t trust people as easily as I used to,” she said. “I keep to myself a lot more. I still struggle with agoraphobia in general. Just leaving the house some days is almost impossible for me.”
Marshall was one of the 19 women who filed a lawsuit against Lyft in December 2019.
“I’ll never be the person that I was before this happened to me,” she explained. “That short trip took a piece of my life away that I can never get back.”