State Supreme Court asked to rule in Lyft rape case
SPRINGFIELD -- The ride-share company Lyft argued before the Illinois Supreme Court Wednesday that a 2014 state law protects it from being held liable for the actions of a driver who is alleged to have raped a passenger in 2017.
The case centers on the constitutionality of the state's first law to regulate the industry, passed in 2014, and could have implications for the separation of powers between the legislative and judicial branches.
Attorney General Kwame Raoul filed a motion to intervene on behalf of Lyft that specifically addressed constitutional concerns.
In July 2017, the plaintiff, referred to in court filings as Jane Doe, used the Lyft app on her phone to schedule a ride after a night out with friends in Chicago. She was picked up by Lyft driver Angelo McCoy and fell asleep in the back of the vehicle, according to the court filing by her lawyer, J. Timothy Eaton, of Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP.
But, instead of driving her home safely, "McCoy drove Jane to a dark and secluded alley, woke her, zip-tied her hands, and brutally sexually assaulted her multiple times at knifepoint," the filing alleged.
When McCoy began to drive away, Doe escaped from the back of the vehicle, according to the filing, which stated McCoy "had a criminal history spanning three decades."
In the 2017 case, McCoy, 52, was charged with armed robbery, unlawful restraint, aggravated criminal sexual assault and aggravated kidnapping. He has pleaded not guilty and is being held on bail in the Cook County jail. His next court date is Nov. 30.
Doe's initial lawsuit, filed in Cook County, described eight counts of misconduct against McCoy, Lyft and Sterling Talent Solutions, which conducted the company's background checks.
The Supreme Court was not asked to consider whether Lyft or Sterling could be held directly liable for negligence or fraud. Instead, the legal question is whether Lyft can be held "vicariously" liable for acts committed by McCoy.
Key to the case is the 2014 Transportation Network Providers Act, passed on the final day of the General Assembly's legislative session on Dec. 3 of that year.
Earlier in 2014, lawmakers sent a regulatory bill to then-Gov. Pat Quinn, but he vetoed it claiming that it would be overly burdensome to an emerging industry that could be beneficial to Illinoisans.
Lawmakers came back on the final day of the legislative session to approve the bill that would eventually become law, and Raoul's legal filing quoted Rep. Mike Zalewski, a Riverside Democrat, as calling the proposal a "half loaf" that provided less stringent regulations than the bill Quinn vetoed.
Discussion in legal filings centered on a specific provision of the Transportation Network Providers Act that states that ride-share drivers "are not common carriers, contract carriers or motor carriers, as defined by applicable state law, nor do they provide taxicab or for-hire vehicle service."
Lyft argues that language differentiating Lyft from other "common carriers" means it is not subject to the same liability as a taxi company -- which is a common carrier, along with other modes of transportation such as airplanes and railcars.
One reason the General Assembly considered that differentiation, according to Lyft's legal filing, is that while there's anonymity to cab or bus drivers, Lyft passengers have all of their drivers' information, including name, picture and license plate, on their app.
"Lyft has enormous sympathy for plaintiff, who alleges an injury no one should have to endure," the company's lawyers wrote in a legal filing. "As a matter of law, however, Lyft is not vicariously liable for such acts.
"Precisely because sexual assaults are such heinous acts, they necessarily are not in service of an employer or principal and are outside the scope of employment or agency. As such, Illinois law bars vicarious liability for sexual assaults committed by an employee or agent, except in narrowly-drawn circumstances."
But Doe's team argued that if the General Assembly wanted to grant such immunity, it should have spelled it out directly.
Doe's court filing argued that a passenger's safety is in the driver's hands, whether in a cab or a Lyft, which constitutes a "special" relationship that holds the driver to the "highest duty of care."
Had Doe hailed a cab, taken the train or gotten on a bus and been raped, Eaton argued before the court Wednesday, she'd have a legal avenue for a complete remedy.
"But because Jane did what Lyft told her to do by hailing one of its cars instead of a taxicab when she had been drinking too much, she's here today arguing for her right to be treated as more than a second-class rape victim," Eaton argued.
If the court decides that the Transportation Network Providers Act grants immunity to ride-share companies, Doe's team argued, then it should determine that the law is itself an unconstitutional "special" piece of legislation that favors a specific industry, and it should be struck down on those grounds.
But Lyft's lawyers, along with Raoul, argued that such a reading of law would be incorrect and would constitute an overreach by the court.
Because the technology allowing ride-share companies to operate -- namely the app that includes the driver's identifiable information -- the industry is substantially different from existing transportation methods and it's within the scope of the legislature's constitutional authority to regulate it differently.