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Uber ordered to pay $1 million to blind Marin County woman denied rides

Uber has been ordered by an arbitrator to pay a Bay Area woman over $1 million after it ruled she was repeatedly denied service.

Mill Valley resident Lisa Irving, who is blind and uses a guide dog named Bernie, was awarded $1.1 million after the arbitrator sided with her complaint she was denied rides 14 times between 2016 and 2017. Uber argued the fault lay with the individual drivers, who are independent contractors, but the arbitrator found the company was beholden to the Americans with Disabilities Act regardless.

"Uber's own investigations found that these drivers knowingly denied Ms. Irving rides because of her guide dog," the arbitrator wrote in last week's ruling.

The arbitrator considered 14 specific instances and ordered payment in all of them. The damages ranged from the statutory floor of $4,000 up to two for $75,000 apiece. In one case, the driver was allegedly verbally abusive and Irving said she feared for her safety.

"Ms. Irving lodged complaints with Uber expecting that they would be investigated, that Uber would take further action and that Uber would report back to her," the arbitrator wrote. "When Uber did conduct an investigation, its investigators were trained, in some instances, to coach drivers to find non-discriminatory reasons for ride denials."

Complaints about denial of service to blind riders based on their service animals have been around since the early days of Uber's ride-sharing service. In 2014, the National Federation of the Blind and others brought a class action against Uber in federal court in San Jose targeting denial of service when blind riders were accompanied by service animals. NFB and Uber settled the class action case in 2016.

Irving was awarded $324,000 in damages. In addition, the court awarded her attorney's fees in excess of $800,000.

"We believe this may be the largest award ever issued to a single blind claimant for repeated violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act and California's Unruh Act," Irving's counsel said in a statement.

The Bay City News Service contributed to this report.

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