Judge awards nearly US$13 million to women who say they were exploited by porn producers

SAN DIEGO (NYTIMES) - A Superior Court judge in San Diego tentatively awarded nearly US$13 million (S$17.5 million) to nearly two dozen young women Thursday (Jan 2), ruling that they had been tricked into performing in pornographic videos that derailed and uprooted their lives and led several to become suicidal.

The ruling capped an unusual 99-day civil trial that exposed the bait-and-switch tactics and false promises deployed as part of a scheme to induce young women, who would not otherwise consider filming pornography, to fly to San Diego and shoot a pornographic video.

The judge, Kevin Enright, ordered the defendants to remove the women's images and videos from the pornographic websites they control or own, and to take steps to remove them from other online sites.

He gave both sides 15 days to object to his decision before it would become final.

Edward Chapin, a lawyer who represented the 22 plaintiffs in the suit, said Thursday that the ruling was an important victory for the young women who had suffered personally and professionally. Each woman would receive an amount ranging from about US$300,000 to US$550,000.

"They are happy with the outcome because it shows they were believed, that their story was believed," Chapin said. "They had been shamed. These guys attacked them, harassed them and intimidated them, so it was challenging to get them to testify. So it's a vindication for them."

The case named three defendants: Michael Pratt, the chief executive of the site; Andre Garcia, an actor; and Matthew Wolfe, a videographer, as well as the business entities they operated.

Daniel Kaplan and Aaron Sadock, two lawyers for the defendants, said Thursday that their clients were weighing their options and would most likely file objections to the court's tentative decision, and if the decision became final, formally appeal.

Kaplan and Sadock said their clients were also focused on defending themselves against criminal charges filed last fall in federal court in San Diego that mirrored the allegations levelled against them in the civil case.

In October, Pratt, Wolfe and Garcia were each charged with three counts of sex trafficking by force, fraud and coercion, and one count of conspiracy to commit sex trafficking by force, fraud and coercion.

Another associate, Valorie Moser, who the authorities said helped recruit the women, was charged with one count of conspiracy to commit sex trafficking by force, fraud and coercion.

Wolfe, Garcia and Moser pleaded not guilty in the criminal case.

The authorities said in October that Pratt, who is originally from New Zealand, had left the country and was considered a fugitive. During the civil trial in San Diego, only one defendant, Wolfe, appeared in court, and "provided guarded, and at times inconsistent testimony," Enright wrote.

"The tentative ruling does not affect the criminal case," Kaplan and Sadock said in a joint statement. "The government's burden of proof in the criminal case is 'beyond a reasonable doubt,' which is a much higher standard than in this civil lawsuit where the burden of proof is a mere preponderance of the evidence." Enright found that the women had been lured with Craiglist ads that offered to pay them around US$5,000 for photos or video shoots. The ads did not indicate that any nudity or pornography would be involved.

 
 

"Wanted," one ad read, "beautiful college type preppy girls," for video and photo shoots.

The women who responded to the ads said they were directed to innocuous websites, with pictures of clothed women, that asked for their contact information and photographs.

The ads turned out to be from the producers of a porn site, who were seeking women to make so-called amateur pornography, which often features fresh-faced actresses paired with seasoned male performers.

Once a newly recruited woman had flown to San Diego, she found herself alone in a hotel room with two men about to shoot a pornographic video, Enright wrote.

At this point, the producers had the women sign documents containing "dense and ambiguous legalese," which they falsely described as guarantees that their videos would be distributed only on DVD outside of the United States and would never be published online, Enright wrote.

"Defendants rush and pressure the woman to sign the documents quickly without reading them and engage in other deceptive, coercive and threatening behaviour to secure their signatures," Enright wrote, describing the scheme.

The court found that, contrary to the producers' promises, the women's videos were published on a paid subscription website, and many popular free sites.

"In this case, we're not saying they had a gun to their head, but they were lied to, sold a bill of goods," said Brian Holm, a lawyer for the plaintiffs. "The crux of it is fraud."

The defendants' lawyers had said the women had signed contracts that stated the videos they appeared in could be "used anywhere, anyhow, for any purpose." The distribution of the videos caused the women to experience severe harassment, emotional and psychological trauma, reputational harm, and to lose jobs and academic and professional opportunities, Enright wrote. The videos also derailed and uprooted the women's lives, he wrote.

"They have become pariahs in their communities," Enright wrote, adding that several "have become suicidal." He found that the women's injuries were "directly attributable to the defendants' fraudulent scheme" and awarded the women a total of about US$9.5 million in compensatory damages and US$3.3 million in punitive damages.

Enright also found evidence that the defendants harassed some of the women who filed the lawsuit.

Shortly after one of the women, identified only as Jane Doe 1, hired a lawyer in an effort to obtain a copy of the documents she had signed and to get her videos removed from the web, the pornographic video she had shot was sent to dozens of students, professors and administrators at her law school, the judge wrote.

The defendants denied sending the video, but Enright found it "more likely than not that they were behind the harassment." Michael Levenson.