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Omaha woman sues Lyft over sexual assault; 1,000 similar suits are expected in U.S.

Omaha woman sues Lyft over sexual assault; 1,000 similar suits are expected in U.S.

A case where being one in a thousand is a horrific thing:

An Omaha woman has filed a federal lawsuit against the ride-sharing company Lyft after she was driven around, barely conscious, for two hours and sexually assaulted.

The then-24-year-old woman is one of 1,000 women who either have filed or are expected to file lawsuits against Lyft and Uber for sexual assaults that happened because, they say, the ride-sharing apps have failed to properly screen drivers before hiring them and to protect passengers.

A California-based law firm, Levin Simes Abrams, told several media outlets this summer that they have been contacted by hundreds of women who say they were assaulted by Lyft or Uber drivers — and 1,000 lawsuits are expected.

The cases follow a pattern: A driver will make it appear that the ride is over and the passenger has been dropped off, then drive an at-times intoxicated or incapacitated woman to a deserted place and sexually assault them.

That exact scenario happened in the Omaha woman’s case.

According to court accounts and the lawsuit filed last week by Scottsbluff attorney Maren Lynn Chaloupka:

Having spent an evening drinking in downtown Omaha in May 2019, a friend used an app to hail a Lyft driver for the woman but punched in the wrong destination.

That driver picked up the woman and took her to the address entered, but it was clearly not her residence. The driver was unable to stir the woman to get her exact address. He then took her to a closed gas station at 96th and Q Streets and called another Lyft driver to transport the woman.

komlanvi avitso (copy)

Avitso

Enter Komlanvi “Jules” Avitso. The Lyft driver, 41, picked her up and drove her around for more than two hours.

About 2 a.m., they ended up in the parking lot of a deserted business at 119th and P Streets. Cellphone records pinpoint the woman’s phone as being at that place for 42 minutes. At his trial earlier this year, Avitso testified that he was trying to figure out her destination. Prosecutors said he was raping her.

Eventually, Avitso unlocked the woman’s phone, figured out her actual address and dropped her off. The next morning, the woman pieced together some factors that led her to believe that she had been sexually assaulted: vague recollections of pushing a man away, the driver asking if it was her time of the month, her fingernails hurting, as if she had clawed someone.

She went to the hospital. An exam found DNA in her private area. Test results indicated that the chances of it being anyone other than Avitso were 1 in 3 octillion. An octillion is a 1 followed by 27 zeros.

Avitso was convicted and sentenced to the equivalent of five to six years in prison.

Now Chaloupka contends that Lyft didn’t do enough to protect her client. Lyft did not respond to a World-Herald request for a response to the lawsuit.

Chaloupka said her client — referred to as Jane Doe in the lawsuit — was disappointed in the sentence given to Avitso, though she understands that the native of Togo is expected to be deported after he gets out of prison.

In the lawsuit and in an interview, Chaloupka said there are several simple things that ride-sharing companies could do to protect passengers: vet drivers with more comprehensive criminal background checks (Avitso had no felonies on his record); require cameras to be mounted in the driver’s car; use GPS tracking to ensure that the car remains on the path it should be on; and program the app to send alerts if the ride is taking too long or to include a button the passenger can press if in danger.

Chaloupka said Lyft should have known that sex offenders would see opportunity in a product marketed to drunken passengers.

“Predators are going to prey — they’re going to look for some means to do what they do,” she said. “They are marketing this product to women who are at risk. It’s a defective product that doesn’t have safeguards.”

Lyft has 30 days to file a response to the lawsuit.


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Reporter - Courts

Todd Cooper covers courts, lawyers, trials, legal issues, the justice system and government wrongdoing for The World-Herald. Follow him on Twitter @CooperonCourts. Phone: 402-444-1275.

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