Uber safety policies under new scrutiny after Michigan killings

Critics have argued that Uber has been able to expand quickly while seeking to avoid the permit requirements traditional public transportation firms face.

Uber has settled a lawsuit filed by two women - including one with Charleston ties - who said they were sexually assaulted by drivers on the ride-hailing service and that the company didn't do enough to protect them.

The settlement, which was reached last week, ends one of the biggest legal challenges yet to the transportation company's safety practices. The lawsuit sought to connect San Francisco-based Uber to its drivers' misconduct, even as the company says they are independent contractors, not employees.

The lawsuit pointed to two incidents in which Uber drivers were accused of sexually assaulting passengers, including a Florida woman who was studying in Charleston when she said a driver attacked her in August 2015. After he dropped off the friend she was riding with, the driver allegedly drove away from her house, pulled into a parking lot and "proceeded to viciously rape her," the lawsuit says.

Attorneys for the two women argued that Uber hadn't done adequate background checks on the drivers. In the case of the Charleston driver, they said, a more extensive check would have turned up a past domestic violence conviction.

The case, which was filed in federal court in San Francisco, was dismissed last week. Terms of the settlement were not disclosed.

Uber spokeswoman Susan Hendrick declined to comment on the settlement, and Wigdor LLP, the New York law firm representing the women, did not respond to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, the driver in the Charleston case, Patrick Aiello, pleaded guilty in September to third-degree assault and battery, Charleston County court records show. His attorney, Cameron Blazer, couldn't be reached Friday.

The lawsuit drew national headlines, and it led a federal judge to reject Uber's contention that it couldn't be held responsible for drivers' misconduct. The company argued that its drivers are contractors, not employees, and that it can't be held liable for what they do when they aren't using the app.

In the Charleston case, the driver wasn't using the Uber app when the woman was riding with him. She and her friends had used it to hail a ride from Aiello earlier in the night, and as they got to the Isle of Palms, he agreed to give them a ride home.

But U.S. District Judge Susan Illston wrote that Uber might still bear responsibility. "It is plausible that the rides (the Charleston passenger) took at the end of the night came about only because of Aiello's affiliation with Uber," she wrote in response to a motion from Uber to dismiss the case.

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The case parallels a simmering fight between the ride-hailing company and local governments over safety practices. Attorneys for the women, for one, argued that Uber should start making drivers wait for more extensive background checks based on their fingerprints before they're allowed to pick up passengers.

It has faced similar arguments across the country. The company pulled out of Austin, Texas, earlier this year after city officials there voted to require fingerprint checks, and it has agreed to run such checks for drivers in Houston and New York. The issue has been raised in other places, too, like Chicago and Tampa.

Uber arrived in South Carolina in 2014, setting off months of debate over how the new app-based business model should be regulated. The state Legislature cleared companies like Uber to do business in 2015, requiring background checks and vehicle inspections before drivers hit the road.

In the year since, the company has enjoyed a mostly warm embrace in South Carolina: Uber says it's given more than 1 million rides in the state; it formed a partnership with Attorney General Alan Wilson to reduce drunken driving; and it inked a deal with the University of South Carolina to give students discounted rides from the popular Five Points bar district.

And as smartphone-hailed cars become more commonplace nationwide, Uber's success has drawn competition here. Its primary competitor, San Francisco-based Lyft, arrived in Charleston this summer.

Reach Thad Moore at 843-937-5703 or on Twitter @thadmoore.