After grace period, Uber faces renewed legal wrangling

Taxi and Uber's black car service drivers protest the ride-hailing services Uber X and Lyft in December. The drivers are protesting that Uber and Lyft are operating without legal approval in the city. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Taxi and Uber's black car service drivers protest the ride-hailing services Uber X and Lyft in December. The drivers are protesting that Uber and Lyft are operating without legal approval in the city. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

With a deal temporarily legalizing Uber in Philadelphia expiring Saturday, cab drivers and other opponents of the ride-hailing service are preparing to take down the company in court.

On Thursday, taxi drivers will be back in Pennsylvania court making the case that Uber has annihilated the taxi industry through a regulatory environment tilted against them.

Or, as their attorney Ted Millstein put it,  as if talking to the Philadelphia Parking Authority: “You need to promulgate regulations for Uber the way you regulate the taxicab industry, or stop hyper-regulating the taxicab industry.”

Uber has operated in Philadelphia for two years, and since then, taxicab business has dropped 40 percent, with taxi medallion prices also plummeting to new lows. Uber has more than 12,000 drivers in the Philadelphia area. Lyft, another ride-hailing company, has about 1,000 drivers. 

Millstein said though it’s hard to crack down on Uber’s cars — nearly unnoticeable in traffic — if regulators were serious about taking the company to task for sidestepping city rules and regulations, they could find a way.

“You can audit them, you can see where their revenue is coming from. You can see who drives for them. And if you scare the drivers, if the fines are high enough if they do get caught, there can be deterrence,” Millstein said.

Millstein is representing Ron Blount, who leads the Taxi Workers Alliance, the union representing about 4,000 drivers, in a civil suit against the PPA.

Though Uber is not listed as a party in the suit, the company’s legal team will be watching closely since the outcome could raise existential questions for Uber in terms of how it operates in Philadelphia.

A litany of suits

And it’s far from the first time attorneys for the $66 billion company have stepped inside a Philadelphia courtroom.

A review of state and federal court records shows that Uber has been sued at least 20 times since arriving in the city in 2014. Most of those cases involve motor vehicle accidents and personal injury claims, but there are some notable exceptions.

One case involves allegations that a driver sexually assaulted a passenger. And five of the cases, either pending or on appeal in federal courts, take aim at everything from Uber drivers’ status as freelancers to their alleged unfair position in the market, depriving cab drivers of equal protection under the law.

But as the court brawls continue, those taking Uber rides around the city aren’t expecting any impact.

“Passengers using the service are not subject to any kind of liability, as far as regulators or police are concerned,” said attorney Mike Henry, who is involved in a suit against Uber.

Outside of court, Uber is asking regulators to extend the 90-day deal hammered out ahead of the Democratic National Convention, which gave Uber a breather period. The Philadelphia Parking Authority hasn’t indicated that it will agree to extend the temporary agreement, but both Uber and the PPA are hoping lawmakers in Harrisburg will pass a law creating a special legal category for Uber in Philadelphia, and around the state, that would make the company beyond reproach. 

The PPA dodged the question of whether regulators will start going after Uber drivers since they will soon be again unlicensed to operate in the city. 

“The PPA will act in a manner consistent with the best interests of the public,” said PPA spokesman Marty O’Rourke. “We remain committed to working with all parties involved to quickly resolve this issue and will place a priority on ensuring the safety of all passengers.”

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