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Uber settles California fingerprints lawsuit

Noted for the record.

Uber

Ride-hailing company Uber will pay at least $10 million to settle allegations by California prosecutors that it misled passengers about the quality of its driver background checks.

The settlement was signed Thursday in San Francisco, where Uber is based and where the district attorney led a lawsuit that said Uber falsely claimed its criminal screening of would-be drivers was the most comprehensive available.

San Francisco and Los Angeles prosecutors sued in 2014, saying Uber’s background checks were inferior to what taxi drivers undergo because they did not include fingerprint checks for past convictions. Instead, Uber’s process relies on a name search of other criminal databases and motor vehicle department files going back seven years.

Uber has defended the safety of its service amid a steady stream of allegations that its drivers have assaulted passengers, or, in the case of a driver in Michigan earlier this year, killed people. The app lets passengers share their location in real time, Uber points out, and the person who booked the ride is required to rate the driver after each trip, helping weed out unsavory characters.

Under the settlement, Uber agreed to pay $10 million within 60 days. If the company does not comply with the terms over the next two years, Uber would have to pay an additional $15 million, prosecutors said.

Uber did not admit wrongdoing, as is standard for such settlements, and said it already has made many changes prosecutors sought.

For example, Uber stopped claiming its background checks were “industry leading” when it settled a separate case brought by riders. Under that $28.5 million settlement reached in February, Uber also renamed its “safe ride fee” as a “booking fee.”

Prosecutors ratcheted up pressure on the company in August, expanding the lawsuit with claims that Uber failed to uncover the criminal records of 25 California drivers, including several registered sex offenders and a convicted murderer.

This has been a hobbyhorse of mine for awhile as you know. I’ll stipulate that fingerprint background checks aren’t the be-all and end-all. Fingerprinting has its flaws, and not everyone who would be flagged by such a check represents a real threat. Ideally, there ought to be a risk assessment aspect to this, to separate the truly dangerous people from those who just need to explain themselves. The point I have been making is that I don’t believe Uber’s process is sufficient, and there’s plenty of evidence to suggest they could do a better job of it. I believe that task needs to be done by someone else, as I just don’t believe that it’s something Uber truly takes seriously. At some level, why should they put more effort and resources into doing background checks than they have to? They can always fall back on the claim that the drivers aren’t actually their employees, so they’re not really responsible for what they do. Sure that may eventually catch up to them, but when you’re valued at $60 billion or so, you’ve got a pretty big cushion.

Honestly, if making fingerprint background checks mandatory is a bridge too far, then I like the compromise idea floated by Austin Mayor Steve Adler: Let the drivers undergo such a check voluntarily, and make whether or not they have done so a part of their driver profile. Let Uber and Lyft customer specify that they want a driver who has undergone this extra level of scrutiny. Anyone want to bet against the proposition that the free market will overwhelmingly prefer to be driven by this latter group? CNN, the Mercury News, the LA Times, and the NYT have more.

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