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Uber Takes Another Hit With Hammer-Attack Incident

An alleged attack by an UberX driver against a passenger comes after complaints by authorites about criminal background checks.

Asa Mathat

A rough week for ride-sharing service Uber got rougher with the arrest of one of its Bay Area drivers for allegedly fracturing a passenger’s skull in a hammer attack.

The San Francisco District Attorney’s office said Friday that it had charged Patrick Karajah a 26-year-old UberX driver from Pacifica, Calif., with assault with a deadly weapon in connection with an incident that took place in the city’s Bernal Heights area. Karajah has pleaded not guilty, and is free on bail.

The news capped a week in which Uber suffered a fresh legal setback in Germany and was threatened, along with other ride-sharing companies, with legal action in California over a number of issues, including its claims regarding driver background checks.

Injured in the alleged assault was Roberto Chicas, one of three people Karajah is said to have picked up outside a bar at about 2 am. A dispute over the route the driver was taking is said to have escalated into an argument, during which Karajah is alleged to have kicked the passengers out of the car near the intersection of Ellsworth Street and Alemany Boulevard. Chicas was struck in the eye and runs the risk of losing it.

Uber says it is investigating the circumstances of the Tuesday morning incident. In a statement, an Uber spokeswoman said the company is cooperating with authorities: “Safety is Uber’s number one priority. We take reports like this seriously and are treating the matter with the utmost urgency and care. It is also our policy to immediately suspend a driver’s account following any serious allegations, which we have done. We stand ready to assist authorities in any investigation.”

Cooperating or not, Uber could face some liability. In a press conference Friday, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon raised the possibility that Uber might bear some legal responsibility for the incident. (See his comments in the video from NBC Bay Area below.) “If an employee in the course and scope of their employment, hurts someone, you have certainly civil liability and depending on the extent of it, it could be criminal liability,” Gascon said. “I’m not saying there is either at this point, but certainly that’s the normal lens you use to look at these cases.”

The incident comes as Uber has been under increasing scrutiny over what Gascon’s office has said suggested may be a weak system of criminal background checks for drivers.

While it’s unclear whether a background check could have prevented the alleged assault, it’s one of the issues raised that was raised with Uber and competitors Sidecar and Lyft in both San Francisco and Los Angeles this week. District attorneys from the two cities sent letters to the companies threatening to shut them down with a court injunction if they don’t change their policies immediately.

Sidecar shared its letter from the DA’s office with Re/code. In it the DA’s office contends the company has made “misleading representations on Sidecar’s website that lead customers to believe that Sidecar’s background check screens out drivers who have ever committed driving violations, DUI, sexual assault and other criminal offenses.”

Sidecar CEO Sunil Paul contends that his company’s background check policy was designed in conjunction with the California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates the ride-sharing business. In fact, he said, Sidecar formerly provided 10-year background checks, but it reduced them as part of CPUC compliance.

An Uber blog post from April says its background checks go back seven years, which it calls “the maximum allowable by California law.”

Gascon initially raised the issue in June, after filing battery charges against an UberX driver, who, it turned out, had multiple felony convictions.

But that’s not the only complaint the DA’s office has. It also has problems with a feature all three ride-sharing companies introduced in recent months: Commercial carpools. Uber calls this Uberpool, Lyft calls it Lyft Line, and Sidecar has Shared Rides. In all three cases, the point is to match people on similar routes at similar times into a single car, and have them split the fee.

The CPUC isn’t in favor of this new feature either. It told Uber, Lyft and Sidecar that the law prohibits offerings such as theirs from charging individual fares to passengers.

Following their usual practice, the three startups haven’t made any changes to how they operate in response to the warning letter they received from the CPUC in early September. And at this point it’s not clear what the legal framework will be be for commercial carpools or whether their existence will hang on the issue of individual fares.

Uber has offered a ride splitting feature for some time — where friends can opt to receive separate checks — and regulators have never complained about that.

The difference is that now the district attorneys are threatening to seek court injunctions that could shut them down. Sidecar thinks that’s a big deal. “This is a more serious situation than prior PUC letters and cease-and-desist letters,” Paul said. “The district attorneys have threatened injunctions which, if successful, would force us to shut down Shared Rides and perhaps the entire service.” However, Paul said Sidecar for now isn’t changing anything about its service or how it talks about background checks on its website.

Lyft and Uber, meanwhile, acted like this was the sort of regulatory tussle that passes for business-as-usual. In statements issued Friday Lyft said: “We are confident that we can work with the District Attorneys’ offices to address the items outlined in their letter and look forward to discussing with them soon to do so.” Uber said more or less the same thing: “Ride-sharing is unequivocally supported by the California legislature, the CPUC, the governor, local jurisdictions across the state and millions of Californians. The DAs have made numerous inaccurate assertions that we will correct and discuss with them.”

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.

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