Female Uber passenger says she was assaulted, calls company’s business model ‘dangerous’ for women

(Jared Wickerham/AP Photo, file)

(Jared Wickerham/AP Photo, file)

A Philadelphia woman called an Uber car one fall afternoon in 2016. The trip quickly took an ugly turn.

The woman, Stephanie Torres-Fountain, 30, of the Glenwood section of North Philadelphia, was asked by the Uber driver to “uncross her legs,” out of “common courtesy” as she sat in the backseat, Torres-Fountain says.

When she refused, the driver, Emmanuel Ameh, allegedly pulled his car over around 15th and Market Streets in Center City, got out of the car, opened the passenger-side door, and “ripped her hooded sweatshirt over her head.” From there, Ameh allegedly pulled her out of the car, throwing her down on her knees, according to Torres-Fountain.

It was around 2:30 in the afternoon and bystanders, she said, got involved and pushed Ameh off of her. He left the scene. Torres-Fountain says she suffered knee injuries that required surgery. In the months since the alleged assault, she says she’s been rattled, struggling with emotional distress and experiencing nightmares.

Ameh had prior arrests for public drunkenness and disorderly conduct and had convictions on traffic-related incidents, court records show.

Still, Uber hired him as a driver.

And now, in a federal lawsuit filed this week alleging negligence, assault and battery, Torres-Fountain is claiming that the attack on her was caused by the ride-hailing company’s lax driver-screening process.

“More rigorous background checks, including fingerprinting, could have prevented incidents” like what allegedly happened to Torres-Fountain, wrote her lawyer, Scott McIntosh, in the civil lawsuit. Uber’s “business model permits potentially dangerous and violent drivers to be alone with female customers,” he wrote in the suit.

Uber does not run drivers’ fingerprints against a national criminal database, nor does the Philadelphia Parking Authority require taxi drivers to be fingerprinted, a PPA spokesman confirmed.

Uber maintains its background screening process conducted by the third-party company Checkr, Inc. is thorough enough, even without checking someone via their fingerprints.

Uber says its review includes, “major driving violations or a recent history of minor driving violations may result in disqualification,” according to the company. A potential driver who has been convicted of violent or sexual offenses will also be banned from driving. That includes pending charges, Uber says.

Arrests that do not result in convictions, like Ameh’s public drunkenness and disorderly conduct charges that were withdrawn, will not disqualify a potential driver, according to Uber’s policies. And traffic-related convictions, as Ameh had on his record, are considered on a case-by-case basis.

Torres-Fountain said she filed complaints over the October 2016 incident with the Philadelphia Police Department, which police officials confirmed, and with Uber. The company would not comment on whether Ameh is still an active driver with the company.

While Uber says complaints from passengers about sexual assault or misconduct are exceedingly rare among its some 20,000 Uber drivers operating in the Philadelphia area, a CNN investigation found that more than 100 Uber drivers in recent years have been accused of assaulting or abusing passengers around the country.

In California, where the technology giant is based, there is a pending class-action suit in court from several women who say they were attacked during Uber trips. According to that federal complaint, Uber has “done everything possible to continue using low-cost, woefully inadequate background checks on drivers,” which the suit claims has made rides unsafe for passengers, especially women, according to the plaintiffs’ lawyers.

Amid news stories of Uber drivers committing crimes against passengers, the company has been re-running background checks on some of its thousands of Philadelphia drivers. And that has resulted in some of its drivers getting kicked off the platform for decades-old offenses, like a more than 30-year-old robbery charge that disqualified one man from picking up passengers for Uber.

The California suit suggests that Uber should enact a number of new policies to better protect passengers, including installing tamper-proof video cameras, require Uber to be notified about restraining order and domestic abuse incidents and including on-app panic buttons in case a passenger is attacked.

“Each day and week that passes without change is a guarantee by Uber of harm to untold numbers of women who use its app,” wrote New York-based lawyer Jeanne Christensen, who is the lead attorney on the California case.

Scott McIntoch, the Royersford-based attorney who filed the Philadelphia suit against Uber, declined to comment. Attempts to reach his client, Emmanuel Ameh, were unsuccessful.

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