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Sexual Assault Victims Suing Uber Score a Preliminary Legal Victory

By Steven Ellison, Esq. | Last updated on

Hundreds of women who have sued Uber for sexual assault recently won a procedural victory in federal court. The Judicial Panel of Multidistrict Litigation granted their petition to have all pending federal cases transferred to the Northern District of California for consolidated pretrial proceedings in multidistrict litigation (MDL).

What does that mean? What is the Judicial Panel of Multidistrict Litigation? And why is pretrial consolidation a victory for these women? Let's talk about the cases, break down the Panel's decision, and then consider its potential impact on the ongoing litigation.

The Cases Against Uber

Uber remains the dominant player in the ridesharing industry. According to its recent figures, 137 million monthly active platform consumers took more than 2.2 billion trips during the second quarter of this year, generating $9.2 billion in revenue. That's a lot of rides and a lot of money.

But that doesn't necessarily equal happy customers. In fact, Uber has a serious problem on its hands. Its business model is predicated on giving people safe rides. But according to the company's recent safety reports, literally thousands of women have reported being harassed, groped, sexually assaulted, or even raped by Uber drivers between 2015 and 2020. Plaintiffs in dozens of federal lawsuits allege that Uber prioritized company growth over their safety.

Many of the cases were originally filed in federal court in San Francisco, but some were brought in other federal jurisdictions and state courts. That created a situation in which competing court deadlines could lead to competing, even conflicting, results. Plus, there would be a whole lot of duplicative work for the lawyers and the parties. That gets real costly, real fast.

The Judicial Panel of Multidistrict Litigation

This is precisely the situation the Judicial Panel of Multidistrict Litigation was created to address. The Panel consists of several federal judges who are empowered to transfer all pending federal cases to a single judge for coordinated pretrial proceedings, including depositions and document discovery, if the cases involve common questions of fact and centralization serves the interests of justice.

The requirements can be a little subjective — when does centralization serve “the interests of justice"? — but when it comes to mass litigation, the Panel knows it when it sees it. Coordination before one judge can conserve the parties' and the judiciary's resources, avoid duplication, and mitigate the risk of inconsistent pretrial rulings.

Centralization of Federal Uber Sexual Assault Cases

And that is precisely what the Panel found as to the Uber sexual assault cases. Before centralizing, the Panel must find that all cases must involve common questions of fact. Although every passenger's experience with an Uber driver is unique, the Panel found the cases all share common factual questions regarding what Uber knew about the prevalence of sexual assault by its drivers and when.

The Panel also found common questions about Uber's implementation of company-wide safety precautions, such as effective background checks, proper training, and adequate responses to complaints about its drivers, that the victims allege would have kept them safe. These common factual questions easily satisfied the common-question predicate.

The only real question was where the cases should be centralized. And in some ways, that was the easier question to answer. At the time it made its decision, there were 79 pending sexual assault cases involving Uber before the Panel. Sixty-two of those were pending in the Northern District of California, 33 of which had been filed by the same lawyers leading coordinated California state court. Uber happens to be headquartered in San Francisco. While some plaintiffs suggested other jurisdictions, the Northern District of California, specifically San Francisco, stuck out like a sore thumb. Centralization there seemed the natural place.

The Transferee Judge: the Honorable Charles R. Breyer

Which judge? The Panel had another obvious choice: the Honorable Charles R. Breyer. Judge Breyer has “unparalleled" experience as a multidistrict litigation transferee judge. He also already had seven Uber sexual assault cases assigned to him. And to his credit, he agreed to take on the added burden of managing the MDL. The Panel expressed confidence “that he will steer the litigation on a prudent course."

A Win for the Victims

Now, why is this a victory for the victims? Not to overstate it, but coordinated pretrial proceedings can be a real boon for plaintiffs in cases like these. Generally speaking, individual plaintiffs lack the financial resources that a huge corporation such as Uber can bring to bear on large litigation. Uber can afford to litigate cases all across the country; the typical sexual assault victim can't. Pooling their resources in front of a single judge can help even the playing field.

And as a practical matter, centralization enhances their chance at getting a good settlement. The way these cases typically play out, the parties work them up then the lawyers recommend a couple to the judge for what are called “bellwether" trials. The parties use the outcome of those trials to determine how much the cases are generally worth (not that you ever really can put a dollar figure on what these women allege to have gone through). They then use those figures as guidance for how much value to put on individual cases based on their specific facts. The MDL process takes a couple of years, but it's far more efficient than litigating separate cases all across the country and generally saves individual plaintiffs tons in litigation expenses while enhancing their chances of getting a good settlement.

What Happens Now?

In the short term, the cases will be sent to Judge Breyer. He'll hold a case management conference, at which he will receive input from the lawyers and may set preliminary deadlines. He will likely also create a plaintiffs' steering committee to manage the litigation for the plaintiffs' side. Virtually all future federal Uber sexual assault cases will be sent to Judge Breyer as what are called “tag-along" cases. And then they're off to the races.

MDLs can take on a life of their own, but at least the Uber sexual assault victims can now rest assured that lawyers experienced with mass litigation will be protecting their interests. If you are a sexual assault victim and find yourself wondering how you could become a part of this litigation, consider reaching out to a local personal injury attorney. They would be able to get in touch with the plaintiffs' counsel in the Uber litigation.

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