A Texas appeals court has rejected Facebook’s efforts to halt multiple lawsuits accusing the social media juggernaut of knowingly permitting sex traffickers to recruit through its various platforms.
The lawsuits were brought by three Houston women recruited as 13-,14- and 16-year-olds through Facebook apps. The social media company appealed the rulings to the 14th Court of Appeal. The appeals court issued three parallel rulings all reflecting a 3-2 majority. In each case there was a dissenting ruling from Justice Tracy Christopher, who found Facebook should be cloaked in federal statutory immunity.
Annie McAdams, the lawyer who sued on the young women’s behalf, said she expects Facebook will seek to halt the cases by appealing the lower courts’ finding to the state supreme court.
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Attorney Kelly Sandill, who represented Facebook in the cases, deferred comment on the rulings to Facebook. Officials there did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The trio of Houston lawsuits make the case that Facebook should not be protected by blanket legal immunity to these allegations and that Houston is the right place to proceed, even if Facebook is based in Silicon Valley.
“Houston is the backyard of where these children were harmed,” McAdams said. “Houston has long been recognized as a hub of human trafficking so it is a perfect the city to address the harms that have been created by online sex trafficking.”
The ruling came from civil judges in October. The appeals court agreed with plaintiffs in separate rulings that Facebook was not immune.
Facebook argued that it was protected from answering lawsuits because the tech company had immunity under the Communications Decency Act, a 1996 law written to address defamation cases against technology cases during the dial-up era.
Lawyers argued on behalf of the young girls trafficked through the site that the Communications Decency Act was never meant to protect tech companies from any and all claims. The act did not grant immunity across the board to tech companies, they said.
The case broke new ground arguing that the federal Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act and the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, known as FOSTA-SESTA, makes it illegal to knowingly assist, facilitate, or support sex trafficking. It amended portions of the Communications Decency Act that said online companies were immune from civil liability if their users violated sex trafficking laws.
The lawyers in Houston said that Facebook was knowingly benefiting from facilitating sex trafficking, even if it didn’t endorse it.