A California judge has tentatively ordered a pornography company run by two Kiwis to pay $19 million to 22 young women, finding that they were tricked into performing in videos that threw their lives off course and led several to attempt suicide.
The ruling Thursday followed a years-long legal battle the women waged against the owners of GirlsDoPorn, a San Diego-based business that has made millions of dollars producing pornography it distributes through a subscription website and other online adult-video providers. The company is also the subject of a separate criminal case in which its owners and employees face federal sex-trafficking charges.
Key to the GirlsDoPorn business model, San Diego Superior Court Judge Kevin Enright noted in the civil case, is the construct that the women in the videos "are not professional porn stars but are amateur college-aged women filming pornography for the first and only time."
The 99-day trial revealed the "calculated steps" the company's operators took to persuade those women after recruiting them for "modelling" jobs on Craigslist, including concealing the true nature of the business, deploying bait-and-switch tactics and offering what the judge called "little choice in completing the shoot." They repeatedly promised that the videos would be available only on DVDs purchased by private collectors overseas and that the identities of the women - all between the ages of 18 and 22, most of them cash-strapped college students - would not be revealed.
Instead, GirlsDoPorn - set up by two tech savvy teenagers originally from Christchurch - swiftly uploaded the videos to its website and Pornhub, one of the world's leading adult-video sites, where they amassed millions of views. The women were doxed and harassed relentlessly, and the videos were sent to their parents, siblings, boyfriends, coaches and pastors. Enright found that, at best, the company knew the result was inevitable and profited from it; at worst, it actively participated in it by revealing names, identifying details and social media accounts as a means of attracting additional subscribers.
Edward Chapin, who represented the 22 plaintiffs, told The Washington Post on Friday that the decision represented a kind of vindication for the women, who suffered what the judge described as "far-reaching and often tragic consequences" after the release of the videos.
"They are happy with the outcome and, you know, what they're happy about is not the $19 million," Chapin said. "What they're happy about is that the court vindicated them and validated their claims and their stories. And that they feel finally that someone has listened to them, because they were shamed, they were ridiculed, they were harassed."
The men behind GirlsDoPorn lured young women with modelling jobs, then tricked them into porn, FBI says
GirlsDoPorn launched in 2009, the brainchild of New Zealand native Michael James Pratt. A childhood friend, Matthew Isaac Wolfe, joined the company two years later and is a co-owner. They are named as defendants in the suit, along with porn actor Ruben Andre Garcia. Their attorneys, Daniel Kaplan and Aaron Sadock, said in a statement to The Post that they are "weighing our client's options, which include filing objections to the court's tentative statement of decision and an appeal if the decision becomes final."
In court, they argued that the women knew what they were getting into and signed contracts allowing the distribution of the videos. But the judge rejected those claims, pointing out that testimony showed the women were plied with alcohol and drugs before completing vaguely written contracts, which they were given little time to read.
"Defendants' argument ignores the obvious implicit power dynamic invariably present in the room: The women are alone in a hotel room with two men they barely know who, although friendly at first, become aggressive and agitated if the women express hesitation or a desire to leave," the judge wrote. "Several Plaintiffs testified that they had second thoughts prior to or during the shoot but felt they were not in a position to try to leave."
Attorneys for the pornographers said their clients were focused on the criminal case pending against them in federal court in San Diego, which mirrors the allegations in the civil case. Wolfe and Garcia were arrested in October; Pratt is a fugitive who is believed to have fled the country. All could face life sentences if convicted.
Kaplan and Sadock noted that the ruling Thursday would not affect the ongoing criminal case.
"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," they wrote. "The findings of fact in the civil case do not carry over to the criminal case where the government will have to prove the facts under a much more stringent standard."
By the time the criminal charges were filed, the civil case had been underway for years. A woman identified only as Jane Doe 1 initiated the lawsuit in 2016, after responding to a Craigslist ad for a model ing gig and ultimately agreeing to film an adult video on the assurance that it was for "one guy in Australia on one DVD that couldn't be copied." She found out the video was online through a text from her boyfriend. Soon it was circulating at her law school.
She testified during trial that she stopped participating in school events and often threw up while walking to class because of her anxiety over being seen in public.
"Although she completed law school and passed the bar exam, Jane Doe 1 no longer wishes to be an attorney because of the impact the video has had on her reputation," Enright noted in the decision. "Jane Doe 1 testified that she used to want to be a mother, but now she feels that she cannot because she would not want to put a child through what she is going through."
The trial featured compelling testimony from each of the unidentified plaintiffs about the ways the release of the videos had derailed their lives. Many said they had lost jobs, relationships and other opportunities as a result. Some were kicked out of their sororities or off teams. Several relocated or tried to alter their appearances.
Others said viewers had blackmailed or propositioned them, sent the explicit images to their parents and siblings and called them derogatory names online and in person. One woman said someone vandalised her car with male genitalia.
Another considered killing herself when the video was first released but then thought she "couldn't even do that because the headlines would probably have something to do with the videos," the judge wrote.
As part of his ruling, Enright ordered the company to remove the women's images and videos from the websites they own, which are still in operation despite the civil and criminal cases. Chapin said the women were especially appreciative of that part of the decision.
"They've got to wipe that slate clean," he said. "That's the first thing that was so important to these women."