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Suit against Uber claims driver attacked a passenger in Philly

A Cherry Hill man is suing Uber, claiming that a driver he hailed with the company's app threw him from a car and beat him when he asked to be taken from Philadelphia to his home in New Jersey.

The complaint appears to be the first of its kind in Philadelphia since November, when the Pennsylvania legislature legalized ride-hailing apps in the city. The suit raises questions that have dogged Uber nationwide: Are its workers employees or contractors? How safe is the service? What responsibility does Uber have for the behavior of its drivers?

In a suit filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia, Joseph Fusco claims that the San Francisco-based company is liable for his assault and battery, and that it engaged in fraud and misrepresentation by promising in ads a safe, secure ride Fusco says he didn't receive.

The company declined to comment on the case, but it did say that it barred the driver involved from using its app immediately after receiving a complaint from Fusco.

Fusco also filed a complaint with the University of Pennsylvania Police Department, according to the suit. That department did not respond to a request Thursday for information about the incident.

About 11 p.m. Dec. 22, Fusco left a corporate Christmas party at Cavanaugh's Restaurant & Sports Bar in University City. He hailed an Uber for a ride home and met the Uber driver's Toyota Corolla on Market Street, according to the suit. Fusco got in the vehicle's front passenger seat and told the driver he wanted to go to New Jersey.

The driver, according to the suit, refused, and when Fusco asked again, the driver got out of the car and pulled Fusco from the seat. The suit alleges that he beat Fusco and "stomped and kicked the plaintiff while he was already unconscious." The attack was caught on surveillance video, according to the lawsuit.

The driver, who is not identified in the lawsuit and whose name neither Uber nor the university police have released, fled the scene and charged Fusco through the app for a 28-minute ride, according to the suit.

Fusco stayed at Presbyterian Presbyterian Medical Center until Dec. 23. Among his injuries were facial fractures and several lost teeth, his lawyer, Matt Luber, said.

Uber has said it is cooperating with a police investigation.

The lawsuit argues that Uber's workers are employees, and that the company bears the same liability for passenger safety as any transportation provider.

"While Uber's technology makes it easy to hire drivers and dispatch taxi rides through an application," Luber said, "we allege that at its core, Uber is a transportation company that must ensure passengers are transported safely."

Uber has repeatedly been challenged in court on its assertion that its drivers are contractors, not employees, but so far no ruling in the United States has proved decisive.

The lawsuit acknowledges that Fusco was drinking alcohol before getting into the Uber driver's Toyota, but it argues Uber specifically markets itself as a safe travel alternative after a night of drinking. The filing raises questions about how much care Uber takes in allowing drivers to use its app to provide car services. The company does not conduct fingerprint background checks or in-person interviews, the suit states, or take other steps to confirm the identity and personal information of applicants.

"In short, the application process to become an Uber driver is simple, fast, and designed to allow the company to hire as many drivers as possible, all at the expense of rider safety – Uber's claimed number one priority," the suit states.

Uber detailed the precautions it takes to ensure driver identity and background information. An overview of its safety protocols stated the company conducts criminal and driving history checks, checks vehicle requirements, and screens applicants through several law-enforcement databases. The company also has a real-time ID process in which a driver periodically submits a selfie that can be used to confirm identity, and Uber's rating system allows passengers to provide reviews that can lead to a driver's account to be canceled.

About 20,000 drivers use Uber in Philadelphia, the company said.

Taxi drivers in the city also do not have to submit to a fingerprint-based background check, according to the Philadelphia Parking Authority, which has oversight over taxis.

Uber promises in its advertising a robust screening system for drivers, a standard of behavior designed to make customers feel safe, and accountability, the suit states, then it cites a line in Uber's disclaimer: "Uber does not guarantee the quality, suitability, safety or ability of third party providers."

Uber did not respond to a question about whether its advertising and disclaimer were contradictory.

In April, an Uber driver was found guilty of sexually assaulting a passenger in Philadelphia in 2015. Since Uber's service was legalized in November, more than half a million people in the city have used the service.