ATLANTA — Popular ride-hailing firms like Uber and Lyft are fighting lawsuits in Atlanta and other cities from cab drivers, taxi and limousine companies claiming the techno upstarts are siphoning off passengers and profits by skirting regulations that ensure consumer safety.
The 2015 Georgia Legislature recently passed bills aimed at protecting passengers and requiring insurance coverage, which are to be signed into law May 6.
But the ride-hailing companies, which use smartphone apps to connect passengers and drivers, have avoided doing fingerprint checks of drivers, and that rankles officials like Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, sponsor of HB 225, which came to be known as the "Uber" bill even though it applies to all companies.
He says fingerprinting is the best way to ensure drivers don't have criminal records, but compromised on that point to ensure his bill's passage.
Under his bill:
— All companies must register with the state Department of Public Safety.
— Ride-hailing firms will be required to show they are paying taxes.
— Companies must carry a million dollars of liability insurance coverage.
— Drivers must have criminal background checks. Companies such as Uber can still do this through private firms, forgoing fingerprints.
Uber-like firms claim their background checks are good enough.
But Powell said, "You'd have to be crazy to employ people who haven't been fingerprinted because you'd only be one disaster away from being sued."
Attorney Les A. Schneider, a lobbyist for Atlanta's taxi and limo companies, agreed.
"Hopefully, one of these days, they are going to wake up and realize the risk of liability," Schneider said.
Vernon Keenan, director of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, says fingerprinting is "the best and most reliable way to determine if someone has a criminal history."
But fingerprinting isn't the only problem. Lawsuits abound against Uber and Lyft, which are regularly in the headlines over how they pay drivers, treat passengers and ensure safety.
For example, a class action suit is pending in Atlanta federal court by drivers claiming Uber has ignored a city ordinance that makes it illegal for a cab to operate without a "certificate of public necessity and convenience". The cabbies pay up to $8,000 for such licenses. William A. Pannell, their lawyer, says Uber ignores such laws.
An Uber driver in Texas, who spent 14 years in federal prison on drug charges, allegedly raped an inebriated female passenger. One in Boston was arrested for sexual assault.
Two California judges ruled in March that juries would decide suits filed by workers against Uber and Lyft who alleged they had been misclassified as independent contractors so the firms could avoid reimbursing expenses.
Uber declines to comment on the litigation. The company says it has 2,000 corporate employees worldwide and 160,000 driver-partners in 42 states, including 5,000 in Georgia. It says it has raised $1.2 billion and has a $40 billion valuation.
Rick Hewatt, owner and CEO of Atlanta Checker Cab, says "these companies like Uber are coming out of the woodwork" and taking away business.
"My granddad started this company in 1947," he said. "We have a very limited profit margin, while they are worth billions. So we have a battle on our hands."