Uber passenger's death draws attention to 'vomit fraud' allegations in ride-hailing business

The fatal St. Patrick's Day shooting of an Uber passenger in New Mexico, which allegedly followed an argument over a fee imposed for vomit in the back seat of the driver's car, has drawn attention to a broader "vomit fraud" trend in the ride-hailing industry.

According to Uber’s policy, riders are responsible for an $80-150 cleaning fee for vomit inside a driver’s vehicle. But users of Uber, Lyft and other similar services around the country have reported cases of “vomit fraud” – in which some drivers have allegedly falsely claimed a passenger puked just to tack on the fee and pocket some extra cash.

Though it remains unclear if the New Mexico case stems from a fraudulent fee, the mere discussion of a potential cleaning charge was apparently enough to get blooding boiling, according to reports.

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The driver involved in the New Mexico shooting death had not been charged as of early Friday, as the prosecutor’s office further investigates the matter. But the family of James Porter, 27, the passenger who was killed along the side of Interstate 25 near Montano, N.M., is suing the driver -- and also Uber, claiming the operator of the ride-hailing app was negligent in hiring, retaining and supervising the driver.

The driver claims he shot Porter in self-defense as their argument over the vomit cleaning fee escalated, the Albuquerque Journal reported.

“Prosecutors are currently going over hundreds of documents and videos,” Michael Patrick, a spokesman for the Bernalillo County District Attorney’s Office, told the Albuquerque Journal. “A charging decision could come sometime in the next few weeks.”

Court documents state that Porter and his friend Jonathan Reyes called for an Uber ride after celebrating St. Patrick’s Day at a bar near San Mateo, N.M. Reyes later told police he had six or seven drinks the day of the shooting but cannot clearly remember the events leading up to his friend’s death.

The icon for the Uber app is seen on a phone in New York, June 12, 2018. (Associated Press)

The icon for the Uber app is seen on a phone in New York, June 12, 2018. (Associated Press)

According to the driver’s account, Reyes threw up in the back seat and Porter began arguing with the driver, pleading him not to charge him a clean-up fee, the Albuquerque Journal reported. (Fox News is not reporting the driver's name because the driver has not been charged in the case.)

According to the Journal, the driver said he pulled over, told the two passengers to get out of the car, ended the ride and gave Porter a "one star" rating as a passenger on the Uber app.

When Porter slammed the car door, the driver got out of the car, and the two men continued yelling at each other, the driver reportedly told police.

According to a police search warrant affidavit, the driver said he drew his gun and told Porter to back up, but Porter threatened to run him over with his own car if the driver wasn't going to shoot him. When Porter approached the open driver’s side door, the driver fired an unknown amount of rounds at him, the Journal report said.

The driver claimed he pulled his gun after Porter threw a pair of sunglasses at him, Albuquerque's KOB-TV reported.

Porter was dead when officers arrived at the scene. Reyes was crouched by his body.

Reyes told officers he did not even remember getting into the Uber that day and only vaguely remembers police taking his clothes and bringing him to the station. The driver was released as the investigation continues. Uber told the newspaper that the driver in question no longer has access to use the app.

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In 2018, the Miami Herald reported a surge in “vomit fraud” allegedly committed by Uber and Lyft drivers. The newspaper documented claims from several Uber riders who said that they were charged cleaning fees despite not throwing up in the car. Drivers are required to submit photos to the app showing the vomit in the vehicle, and Uber then adds the cleaning fee to riders’ receipts after the rides.

In some instances, riders said their receipt showed fake photos of vomit. They said they got out of a clean car and allege drivers staged the photo to charge them extra money.

Uber told the Herald that “the vast majority of cleaning fee reports are legitimately the result of someone making a mess in the car. In the instances where we find a confirmed case of fraud, we take appropriate action.”

Riders can report false vomit claims through the app’s help feature.