Ride-Sharing Companies Will Pay Drivers’ Legal Fees If They’re Sued under Texas Abortion Law
Uber and Lyft, the popular ride-sharing companies, have announced they will cover the legal fees of any drivers who are sued under Texas’ new abortion law. The new law lets private citizens sue anyone who “aides and abets” a woman who obtains an abortion, including those who provided a ride to a clinic. Plaintiffs filing the lawsuits could win $10,000 in fees while defendants are barred from collecting any legal fees in the event of a defense verdict. The US Supreme Court has declined not to stop enforcement of the law while lawsuits are pending, but the constitutionality of it is still in significant doubt.
Uber and Lyft both stated it was their policy that riders never have to justify or share where their riders are going or why. In theory, this law would permit private citizens to sue persons outside of Texas for aiding an abortion. However, Texas’ jurisdiction ends at its own borders, though the potential for lawsuits against non-residents potentially exists. Even for Uber or Lyft drivers in Texas though, the potential legal risks of ride-sharing have dramatically gone up. Uber or Lyft’s offer to cover legal fees for such lawsuits is arguably necessary for the companies to retain and recruit drivers.
What Does It Mean to Aid and Abet a Crime?
Traditional rules regarding accomplice liability means that the “accomplice” encourages, procured, solicited, or advised the commission of the crime. An accomplice who assists or helps another commit the crime can receive the same sentence as the person who actually committed the crime. An accomplice must have a requisite mental state in committing or aiding in the commission of the crime.
Texas’ definition of aiding and abetting an abortion still requires that the defendant know that a woman they are “aiding” is seeking an abortion. There are no further restrictions beyond this – a defendant could “aid and abet” an abortion by dropping off a woman at an abortion clinic or giving directions to a pregnant woman. However, Texas is giving private citizens the ability to enforce the aiding and abetting clause rather than seeking prosecution for these alleged crimes. Strategically, the rules are written in such a manner to avoid judicial review as long as possible and it appears the gambit has paid off at the moment.
Texas and the ride-sharing companies are both opening an unintentional can of worms by taking their respective stances. If states can give private citizens the right to sue one another irrespective of whether that citizen is harmed, frivolous lawsuits would likely increase a hundredfold. Imagine if a state like California or Maine gave private citizens the right to sue one another for failure to wear a mask or for carrying a gun. The prevalence of such laws would turn neighbor against neighbor and would increase the polarization of today’s political environment. The culture wars would finally spill over from social media between politicians and activists into courtrooms between local communities.
For Uber, Lyft, and ride-sharing companies, their policies’ impact would be more subtle. There may be situations where a driver should second-guess what their rider is doing. Is the rider carrying a child that looks like he or she doesn’t want to be with? What if the rider attempts to bring an unconscious woman into the vehicle? What if the rider is carrying various firearms and asks to be driven to a bank or an elementary school?
It might be easy for an Uber or Lyft driver to look the other way when a pregnant woman steps into a vehicle. However, there will be other instances where it would be prudent for a driver to ask what is going on.
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