TAMPA — Uber will continue to operate in Hillsborough County after surviving its latest bout in the legal ring with local regulators.
A circuit judge on Friday denied a motion from regulators asking for an injunction that could have forced the rideshare company to stop serving the county.
Hillsborough Circuit Judge Paul Huey sided with Uber against the Public Transportation Commission, the regulatory agency that argued the rideshare company lacks appropriate background checks, insurance, safety and vehicle inspections required of taxis.
The PTC, which regulates for-hire vehicles in Hillsborough County, asked for the injunction as part its ongoing legal battle with Uber, which started serving the area 16 months ago.
"We thought it was going to be easy-peasy, slam dunk," said PTC Chairman and Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist. "Frankly, we're absolutely shocked."
Uber has faced legal challenges from cities across the country, including Fort Lauderdale, San Antonio, Texas, and Portland, Ore. Regulators nationwide have sought injunctions against the company with varying success.
Huey wrote three pages detailing why he denied the injunction, dealing blows to both sides before ultimately ruling that the PTC "failed to meet its heavy burden" required of an injunction.
"This case rests at the border between the old world and the new," Huey wrote in his order.
Uber Florida general manager Matthew Gore said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times that the ruling was a win for the region.
"We hope that the Hillsborough County PTC will see this as an opportunity to reconsider its publicly funded campaign against ridesharing and help us lead Tampa Bay toward a brighter transportation future with modern regulations that ensure access to safe and affordable options like Uber," Gore wrote.
Though the PTC regulates for-hire vehicles such as taxis, limos and vans, Huey said that their definitions are too narrow to include Uber. Instead, he encouraged the PTC to rewrite its definitions so that Uber clearly comes under the regulatory umbrella.
"Because an Uber Driver does not necessarily satisfy the definition of a 'taxicab' under the unambiguous language of the PTC's ordinances, the Court declines to enter injunctive relief at this time," Huey wrote.
Huey also took issue with the fact that the PTC had only sought an injunction against Uber and not its competitor Lyft or other rideshare entities, known as transportation network companies.
And while regulators listed a "parade of potential horribles that could befall users of Uber," the judge said there was no credible proof that Uber drivers are any less trustworthy or safe than taxi or limo drivers.
But his criticism wasn't reserved solely for regulators. Huey poked holes in Uber's arguments, too, including the assertion that because Uber has been operating here since April 2014, its presence was now the status quo.
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"In a non-derogatory sense, the James Gang cannot ride into town and tell Sheriff Wyatt Earp how to act," Huey wrote. "In this case, the status quo is life before Uber, not after."
While Huey denied the injunction, he noted that winning at this preliminary stage is more difficult than winning at trial. Then, regulators need only prevail by a "preponderance" of the evidence.
Chief Assistant County Attorney Rob Brazel said he is unsure whether the PTC will continue to issue tickets against Uber and its drivers. The company has more 2,000 drivers operating across the Tampa Bay area.
The PTC has conducted dozens of sting operations to cite the company and its drivers. Brazel said the board needs to discuss the subject further with its outside counsel before making a decision one way or the other.
"The PTC still believes they are operating outside of our rules," Brazel said. "But there's also nothing in the order that prohibits them from operating."
Contact Caitlin Johnston at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3401. Follow @cljohnst.