back to article Woman sues Lyft, says driver gang-raped her at gunpoint – and calls for app safety measures we can't believe aren't already in place

A woman who says she was subjected to a horrific rape at the hands of her Lyft driver has sued the tech biz. Alison Turkos took what should have been a 15-minute trip home in New York in the fall of 2017, yet woke up mid-journey to find herself miles away, and in a different US state, being gang-raped at gunpoint by her driver …

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    1. ma1010 Silver badge

      Re: If the accusation would have any merit

      I've worked in the legal system for many years. You appear to have a lot more confidence in it than I do. Given that her statements are true, there are many factors that may have prevented a prosecution, the most basic of which is sufficient evidence. What evidence she may have to support her allegations, I don't know, but she has to have more than her unsupported word if she has any hope of prevailing even in civil court.

      Can't speak for New York, but in California, for quite a while you've had to get fingerprinted by police and have driver's license and criminal background check to get a license to drive a regular taxicab. I know this because 30+ years ago, I drove a cab while going to school. But these "gig economy" rides are exempt from that law, it seems. Lawmakers could and should, IMHO, cure that right away. Whether or not her story is true, putting "gig" drivers under the background check law would be a step in the right direction.

      1. DontFeedTheTrolls Silver badge
        Childcatcher

        Re: If the accusation would have any merit

        In the UK you need to have either a Taxi license or a Private Hire license issued by the relevant Council in order to offer any passenger carrying services no matter how they are co-ordinated (e.g. despatcher by radio, cap company app, Lyft, Uber, etc)

        Now, do Lyft, Uber etc actually check each drivers paperwork?

        1. BillG
          Meh

          A Few Small Problems

          There's a lot missing from this story. Oddly enough, initially the accuser said nothing about rape, she complained to Lyft that she fell asleep in the car and the driver took an indirect route. So instead of a $12.81 tab it was $106.80. The problem with that is the price of the ride is set by the app when you set up the ride, so whether the driver took her straight home or to Jersey & back it should have been $12.81.

          After Lyft refused a refund she told Lyft she was filing a police report, but didn't tell Lyft what it was for. But the police initially declined to press charges, allegedly they didn't believe her story. It was a month after the ride that Lyft found out about the rape from an article written in the Wall Street Journal.

          She claimed she was so severely beaten she could barely move but she never went to a doctor hence no medical report. This is suspicious because she has been a long time advocate of women's rights for sexual assault victims. She's worked with Planned Parenthood, is co-chair of the New York Abortion Access Fund, and is a member of NARAL and the National Institute for Reproductive Health. So she knows, she absolutely knows a medical report is essential in these situations - a medical report can make or break a "he said she said" rape accusation. But despite her claims of being beaten so badly she couldn't move she didn't go to a doctor.

          This is only the tip of the iceberg of what is wrong with her story.

          1. diodesign (Written by Reg staff) Silver badge

            Re: A Few Small Problems

            "There's a lot missing from this story."

            For one thing, for those who don't believe her, this is right at the start of a lawsuit so why not let the case play out under the scrutiny of judges and lawyers, just even a little? We're at the first draft of history, here.

            I know Reg readers love it when we debunk stuff, and you may be expecting us to do that here, but I don't think our role at this moment is to attempt to debunk a sex assault case mid-proceedings - as if there's some kind of gold-standard in rape claims and we've got to immediately judge her case against that.

            "initially the accuser said nothing about rape"

            Generally, it takes people time to come to terms with serious assault. Maybe it's taken her two years to work up the courage to this point and be so blunt and open about it.

            How about, we report what's claimed, and then follow the process through the courts. We're all for critical thinking, and dispelling untruths; I just think it's premature for that right now, especially on such a non-trivial, sensitive, and personal matter.

            C.

            PS: We're aware of the details you mentioned. Not sure we want to get into any revolting nitpicking of the as-described ordeal, especially before the case has even got underway.

            PPS: I used to be a court reporter way back in the day. I've seen some people's claims torn apart during hearings. Allegations completely demolished. If you don't believe the person in this case, so be it - but at least wait for the process to play out.

      2. Jove Bronze badge

        Re: If the accusation would have any merit

        How do you know that "Given that her statements are true"?

        Has it gone to court yet?

    2. Grikath

      Re: If the accusation would have any merit

      Like FF22 I have my reservations about the story. The failings of US law enforcement and judiciary aside, kidnapping + serial rape under threat of a firearm is quite an accusation, and not something that's easily dismissed. Especially when the one accused is not "someone who jumped you in the dark" , but easily identifyable.

      Which raises the next question: If events transpired as the lady described, how did she end up home, with a receipt/invoice for the ride, and not in a bodybag? Sad statistics prove that cases like this where the assailants can be identified tend to have a rather less happy outcome than a hangover and a bill that's higher than expected for the victim.

      The lady in question and her crusade are easily googled, and people can make up their mind about the story for themselves, but the entire story is not quite as depicted in the article.

      That said, it is a fact that the likes of Uber and Lyft only seem to comply with even the most basic checks and balances established for their particular type of business unless forced with the legal equivalent of a rectal cavity search with a spiked bat, and not just in the US. Which is something that does need to change.

      Whether this particular lawsuit, given the number of question marks it raises, is the best way to go about it? Time will tell.

      1. brainbone

        Re: If the accusation would have any merit

        "The failings of US law enforcement and judiciary aside, kidnapping + serial rape under threat of a firearm is quite an accusation" ... "Especially when the one accused is not "someone who jumped you in the dark" , but easily identifyable"

        The problem with rape is proving it. I know it doesn't jive with all the false accusation stories you've heard, but most rape cases devolve into a he-said she-said issue that puts the victim at a disadvantage. Without multiple witnesses willing to testify, far more often than not, rapists tend to go free.

        Perhaps you were thinking of murder, not rape?

        1. DontFeedTheTrolls Silver badge
          Boffin

          Re: If the accusation would have any merit

          "Without multiple witnesses..."

          Which is one reason many of the proposed technical solutions provide corroborating evidence. Did the vehicle deviate from the planned route? Did the passenger agree to a deviation? Did the app record any misconduct? etc

          We hear constant stories of technology listening when it shouldn't, let's turn it on its head and have technology listen when it needs to. While some passengers might want privacy and an option to turn it off, most would be happy if there ride was recorded remotely.

      2. fajensen Silver badge

        Re: If the accusation would have any merit

        Whether this particular lawsuit, given the number of question marks it raises, is the best way to go about it?

        It probably is. The criminal law system favours the offenders because they have to be found guilty "...beyond reasonable doubt ...".

        The civil law system does not have this restriction so she might at least get compensation. Like with the O. J. Simpson case; He beat the rap on the criminal case, then get nailed later in the civil case.

        PS:

        It should be common knowledge that the Metrics- and NPM-saturated police "services" we have today will simply not bother to investigate even obvious cases when their scheduling AI deems that the 'Force KPI's' are unlikely to be fulfilled. Law Enforcement is *not* part of the current police KPI-set.

      3. jmch Silver badge

        Re: If the accusation would have any merit

        " Sad statistics prove that cases like this where the assailants can be identified tend to have a rather less happy outcome than a hangover and a bill that's higher than expected for the victim."

        Sad statistics prove that around 3-5% of such accusations are demonstrably false / malicious, yet far too many men* faced with stories about rape immediately jump into "what if she's lying?" i.e. victim-blaming mode.

        and yes, being gang-raped is "rather less happy outcome than a hangover and a bill that's higher than expected"

        *I would say 'people' but it's predominantly men

        1. Mark192

          Re: If the accusation would have any merit

          "I would say 'people' but it's predominantly men"

          I've found this view to be both naive and inaccurate. It's a commonly held opinion by a large proportion of both men and women.

  2. Aitor 1 Silver badge

    prove innocence

    So essentially they want Lyft to fire anyone accused of rape, guilty till proven innocent. And it is ok.

    I assume that if you point out how unfair this is you would get fired/banned/etc?

    1. Jim Mitchell

      Re: prove innocence

      How can Lyft fire anybody? According to them, they have no employees!

    2. elaar

      Re: prove innocence

      "Lyft has actually “refused to cooperate with law enforcement, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation.”"

      If the above is true, I'm assuming the first thing she wants is for Lyft to cooperate fully with crime enforcement and take allegations seriously, and not necessarily just "fire anyone".

      1. jmch Silver badge

        Re: prove innocence

        I would expect that Lyft, on being approached by the police / FBI, should have immediately turned over every bit of information about (a) the driver and his background checks (b) GPS trail for the night in question (c) all available GPS traces for other routes the driver drove and (d) any GPS traces about the complainants' past rides.

        Failure to do so immediately could have, and perhaps has, compromised the police / FBIs ability to build a case that is not based solely on the victim's testimony (which has a low probability of clearing the 'beyond reasonable doubt'). For example take DNA samples from under alleged perps' fingernails, traffic camera recordings for the route etc etc. A lot of this type of evidence needs to be secured immediately or is gone forever, hence Lyft's dilly-dallying (to protect their own image) could have destroyed any possibility of a successful prosecution.

      2. Cuddles Silver badge

        Re: prove innocence

        "If the above is true, I'm assuming the first thing she wants is for Lyft to cooperate fully with crime enforcement"

        This is the part that really confuses me. Lots of people commit crimes, and most of them have a job of some sort. The fact that a company employs someone who commits a crime does not generally reflect badly on said company. If a doctor steals a bottle of whisky from Tesco, you don't sue the hospital for employing him before that. So why would Lyft not cooperate? One among thousands of low-level workers they don't give a shit about commits a crime, the police ask for information, Lyft say "Here's everything we know about him, he's just some guy we employ and we don't give a shit about him". If he's found not guilty, or not charged at all, they continue to employ him, otherwise they don't.

        I know all these so-called gig economy companies tend to be as shitty as they possibly can in pretty much every circumstance, but that's usually in cases where they actually stand to benefit from their shitty behaviour. For something like this, there doesn't appear to be any possible benefit for Lyft. They don't have a problem finding employees, so losing this one guy isn't relevant to them. The absolute best possible outcome is that no-one does anything about it and they have net zero benefit; every other outcome where they face increased police scrutiny, lawsuits, and regulation is a serious negative for them. So I just don't understand their behaviour at all. Have they just spent so much time being shitty to everyone that they forgot to check whether it's actually beneficial to their bottom line first?

        1. Mark192

          Re: prove innocence

          "why would Lyft not cooperate?"

          Because their leadership are stupid and short-termist.

          They've done the calculation and decided that news stories about sexual assaults due to their doing the bare minimum they can get away with is better than investigating properly and weeding out the predatory employees.

          Basically, marginally reduced business vs massive costs of better background checks, the delay that adequate checks incur that mean fewer drivers apply and get through and that reduce the speed they can expand.

          This is why we need proper regulation - we can rely on business to do the bare minimum. When more is needed from business we need more than pressure from the press.

          I'm surprised politicians aren't all over this already. Possibly they take a similar attitude to the businesses that also don't give a f about the people they serve.

    3. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

      Re: prove innocence

      If a serious allegation is made about a teacher say (a job where you have to have background checks) then they would have to be suspended on full pay until the case was settled - or at least it turned out that they could be sacked for some reason, given the lower standard of proof required for a sacking compared to a conviction.

  3. ma1010 Silver badge
    Pirate

    This is horrible

    Why can't any corporation have some sense of moral responsibility? These ride-sharing businesses seem to be among the worst. I've avoided Uber because of the way they treat people, but now I see Lyft is as bad or worse.

    Why the hell don't our lawmakers fix this by making these companies responsible so they actually do something about this? Oh, yeah, big corporate lobbying.

    1. brainbone
      Headmaster

      Re: This is horrible

      "Why can't any corporation have some sense of moral responsibility?"

      Because they'll claim they have a moral responsibility to their shareholders. Can't you hear the cries from the boardroom? "What about the shareholders? Who will save the shareholders?!"

      "Why the hell don't our lawmakers fix this by making these companies responsible"

      Because they know who's paying for their re-election campaign, and they want to secure a fat paycheck after they're out of office.

  4. Foxglove

    What a time to be alive.

    Sarcasm. obs.

    We really need lawmakers to wake up from their afternoon naps and see the real world.

    Not going to happen anytime soon I know.

    My thoughts go out to those who have suffered injustice and also to those who will suffer in the future.

    New tech companies aren't the only bad actors, but they are getting away with making money whilst bad shit happens.

    They don't care because they aren't regulated and they have no conscience.

    Time to pass some new laws, time put put some people in jail.

  5. tcmonkey

    Par for the course

    My sympathies for the victim, as this is obviously something that nobody should have to endure.

    That said, when all these services launched there was a lot of concern regarding inadequate screening and checks of drivers, so I can’t say that I’m surprised in the least that such things have happened. Neither should anyone else be. You get what you pay for.

    1. Nick Kew
      Facepalm

      Re: Par for the course

      So you'd've paid more to be driven by John Worboys?

      1. tcmonkey

        Re: Par for the course

        You’re going to get bad’uns in every breed, but a company known to be pretty rough and ready with its “hiring” practices (which is basically what the gig model is all about) is statistically more likely to have them. It’s a simple numbers game.

  6. earl grey Silver badge
    Mushroom

    sue them good

    maybe for their entire valuation for a start. there should also be some punishment for corporate criminal collaboration.

  7. FozzyBear Silver badge

    Something doesn't add up.

    She reported the incident within 24 hours to Lyft but waited another day before making the difficult decision to report the incident to police.

    So she had no problem calling a faceless corporation and reporting the kidnapping and rape, then took issue with them ignoring her pleas and insisting she pay the fare. However, it was a difficult decision to report the incident to police. Doesn't add up.

    A investigative viewpoint a rape kit would have been done ( and was ) , this would have obtained DNA ( may still be present days after the attack ) counselling and support groups are automatically involved. Considering the "state line" scenario and the allegation of kidnapping, FBI are involved. The allegation and the evidence obtained from the rape kit , is more the sufficient to obtain either a Court order or subpoena for Lyft to provide the name of the driver. Failure to do so is tantamount to aiding and abetting after the fact for all felony charges.

    Interestingly, if Lyft ignored the subpoena and the offender then commits a similar offence (kidnap and/or sexual assault). There is legal precedents to support Aid and Abetting before the fact charges.

    So yeah something doesn't add up....

    1. diodesign (Written by Reg staff) Silver badge

      "Doesn't add up."

      I wouldn't be so quick to judge the mental state of someone who went through the ordeal they described.

      Also, talking to the police involves formal interviews, lawyers, identifying the suspect, collecting of DNA evidence, perhaps even court appearances - not particularly nice experiences versus lodging a complaint to an app maker.

      C.

      1. Grikath

        Re: "Doesn't add up."

        Dio, with all due respect, the story really doesn't add up:

        A bit of digging shows that ( and I'll be careful..)

        - The alledged assailant, according to Uber, fulfilled all the qualifications and licenses necessary for operating a taxi in NYC. In other words, he was at least capable/licensed to also drive one of the Yellow Cabs. Which should make him doubly easy to find.

        - The purported victim *did* lodge a complaint with Uber the next day, about the bill.. And went through the mill doing the rape kit experience well within the timeframe necessary. And it was found that it had DNA of two males on her clothes. However, the sequence of events as described in the article only emerged after "months of recollection". Traumatic as rape is, I do believe you tend to remember stuff like that rather acutely, rather than months later. Cognitive dissociation is a thing, but the bill and rape kit experience alone should have given acute flashbacks right then, not months later.

        - I cannot believe that both NY(C?)PD and the FBI totally failed to investigate a kidnap/rape first category case where the alledged assailant can be easily tracked down for the primary investigation. The rape kit *did* get processed, so any investigation, given the severity of the charges and the ease with which the alleged assailant *should* have been found should have gotten results. It's a detective's wet dream....

        - I very much doubt that Lyft would keep any driver in their active pool when the driver in question is subject to a FBI investigation ( and Lyft would have been involved in any FBI investigation, at least for activity/ride logs..). And while they can try to be "innocent" of any dodgyness in their drivers before any act, they sure as hell would be liable after the fact. And a FBI investigation into the activities of one of "their" drivers is a big hint. Ignoring that would have their legal department in a fit big enough to trigger the San Andreas fault. Yet according to the article they did just that.. And allowed a "name change"..

        There's more, but the points above alone would have a defense lawyer salivating like an overbred bulldog presented with a side of bacon. So yeah... it "doesn't add up".

        1. diodesign Silver badge

          "The story really doesn't add up"

          Look, we talked it over in the office. There are parts that are baffling - why can't the cops or Feds just question the guy, or check phone records, the usual stuff.

          But then in this day and age, nothing surprises us anymore: incompetence and misfortune and difficulties strike at every level.

          The article is presented as is: reporting what she has claimed, and what she wants implemented, which to us seem pretty basic measures.

          C.

          1. Grikath

            Re: "The story really doesn't add up"

            And I am not claiming it is other than it is. We share the same bafflement, and I am reading this as a Cloggie seeing proof that the world has gone batty..

            You also have to agree that given the readership of El Reg, and the shedload of Office Bingo most of the commentards have had to endure in their professional careers when dealing with applying the logic needed to tell the electronic morons we herd versus expectations of Manglement and Commitee Meetings, this story raises a "couple" of warning flags.

            If we failed to spot the glaring holes, we would simply not be suited for our jobs.

        2. ghp

          Re: "Doesn't add up."

          "and I'll be careful"

          So careful as to mess up between Uber and Lyft? That promises.

      2. Charlie Clark Silver badge

        Re: "Doesn't add up."

        Independent of the merits of the case, which as described should be open and close not least because of the available, telemetry, it's not a secret that the main advantage for these companies is the lack of regulation, which means they can undercut existing services. Unfortunately, the media is at least partly guilty of providing them with free publicity focussing on the convenience and lower cost. Only recently on QI Holly Walsh boasted about relying to get home with Uber no matter what state she was in.

        Fundamentally this is a failure of regulation: harmonising the rules in the UK for private hire vehicles and taxi cabs would be easy; as in America would be removing the artificial restriction of taxi licences, which turn it into a restricted trade with not enough capacity when and where required. But we shouldn't overlook our own culpability in continuing to provide PR for these companies.

        Back to the case itself: in the US things do get very tricky as soon as crimes cross state lines. Nevertheless, there should still be a case to answer with New York alone if the journey was not as specified.

  8. Imhotep

    "The starting point for Lyft, however – as for every other organization – is to “believe survivors; it is critical that they be believed,”

    Well that would certainly simplify things. I would have said the starting point was to investigate and act on what the evidence supported.

    And given the lack of criminal charges, that makes me wonder exactly what the evidence in this case does support.

    1. Jedit
      Headmaster

      "And given the lack of criminal charges"

      In a rape trial the victim is forced to recall the event over and over. She is frequently accused of provoking the attack, leading the attacker on or misidentifying him - literally "how could you tell if it was the defendant who was raping you when you were under so much stress, what with being raped at the time" in some cases - and even of having actually consented and only crying rape after the fact. Many, many victims decline to press charges because they don't want to have to go through all that when the conviction rate is also appallingly low.

      So yes, I can see a woman in this circumstance not wanting to go to the courts but still wanting to try and make sure it doesn't happen again.

  9. RAMChYLD

    Old news

    This has been a problem with ride-sharing and even public transport for years. Even before Lyft and Uber, this has been happening to people using Taxis.

    And the government wonders why people distrusts public transport.

    1. Charlie Clark Silver badge

      Re: Old news

      While what you say is largely true, it's also doesn't matter. What matters here is how Lyft responded to customer's complaint and report of sexual assault and how it fails to check its drivers properly.

      You comment on public transport is entirely irrelevant as this is about private hire.

      1. DontFeedTheTrolls Silver badge
        Headmaster

        Re: Old news

        The issues of crime around carriage for hire have existed since the first passenger journeys in coach and horses centuries ago, that's largely why we've ended up with the regulations we have today. They are far from perfect, but they are a refined attempt to keep the public safe.

        Companies who want to disrupt the market by ignoring the regulations are putting public safety at risk and deserve to taken apart when they fail public safety. Markets do need to evolve, technology can make the market competitive and cheaper, but you need to refine the existing rules, not ignore them.

  10. Blackjack

    Just a question

    How long until regulations put these services on parity with taxis and as a result they go bankrupt and all taxis start to use apps?

    1. Giles C

      Re: Just a question

      The taxi company I usually use does already.

      It has an app, but also when you call for a cab, you get texts with the driver name and car reg, and another informing you of the fixed price for the journey. If you don’t want to use an app then there is a link to a website showing you where the car is.

      I therefore know how much, and what car to look for before they get to my door (or where I am being picked up from.

  11. Alienrat

    Cameras

    Regardless to this case, I see no reason why all of these ride services can't match the 'camera in the cab' and keep the footage for 72 hours. Seems like a good idea in general for both the driver and the passengers point of view and pretty easy to mandate / implement.

    And frankly if I was a driver I would want a camera in there.

    1. c1ue

      Re: Cameras

      Sounds good in theory.

      In practice, capturing, uploading and storing 10-15 hours of video, per driver, per day is a ginormous cost and may not even be technically possible at massive scale.

  12. LDS Silver badge

    When your whole business model is based on cheap labour...

    ... you can't be picky about those who are cheap labour.

    Real background checks will make drivers harder to find and more expensive. Letting everybody working for you, including Dracula, Jack The Ripper and Mr Hyde helps to keep pays to "contractors" low and to please investors.

  13. Doctor Huh?

    Market Inefficiencies

    It is best to remember that when a Unicorn service claims that its "innovative" approach to market disruption is to drive out market inefficiencies, safety and security for customers, workers, and just about anyone except the owners are among those "inefficiencies." There isn't anything particularly innovative about that approach. The "muckrakers" in the US documented the approach and its effects over a century ago. Applications of that approach well over a century and a half ago prompted Karl Marx to start musing about economics.

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    What Lyft should do

    Setting aside the question of veracity in this particular case, Lyft can certainly wire their application to improve safety, particularly with regard to route deviation and passenger safety surveillance as suggested. Coupled with sufficient driver screening and background checks, it would seem prudent to limit their liability on the condition that such procedures are in place and observed. I would call it aligning incentives.

  15. BuckeyeB

    To me, this is a law enforcement problem mostly. Yes, a background check that includes determining any arrests or convictions for any type of assaults(sexual or otherwise) should bar one from employment. Other than that, it's up to law enforcement to put this guy in jail or the ground. I'm always wary of people who sue for money rather than trying to get justice in the criminal justice system.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      " background check that includes determining any arrests or convictions for any type of assaults(sexual or otherwise) should bar one from employment"

      Think of all the money we can save in the criminal justice system. Since by this logic we make one permanently unemployable just merely by being arrested for assault. Might as well just dump them in prison or other suitable dumping ground for those that no longer qualify for inclusion in society at large. Why bother investigating if they were actually guilty of any assault, wrongly arrested, acting in self defense? Once arrested for assault you are no longer employable in an occupation seen by many as the lowest skilled and valued in the entire society.

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