This is the third post in a series of posts breaking down the civil causes of action available under the Pennsylvania Human Trafficking Statute. In my last post, I discussed who could bring a case under the statute; this post addresses who can be sued.
The text of the statute allows victims of the sex trade to bring a civil lawsuit against three separate categories of persons:
- A person that recruits, profits from, or maintains the victim in any sex trade;
- A person that abuses or causes bodily harm to the victim in any sex trade act; and,
- A person that knowingly advertises or publishes advertisements for purposes of recruitment into sex trade activity.
At first glance, category one appears straightforward, allowing victims to sue “pimps” or traffickers who profit from the sex trade. However, this language also allows victims to sue businesses that knowingly profit from the sex trade. One example is a hotel or other business that knowingly allows sex trade activity to take place on its premises. In fact, in the first civil case brought under the statute, a plaintiff is bringing human trafficking claims against a Philadelphia hotel, which was the subject of my first blog post about this statute. There can be no doubt that this statutory language is intentionally broad and will allow civil attorneys significant leeway to pursue claims against large, deep-pocketed corporations that profit from the sex trade.
Category two of the human trafficking statute appears relatively narrow and self-explanatory. Category two allows victims to sue abusive “pimps,” traffickers, and sex buyers.
Category three allows victims to sue any party that may have recruited them into the sex trade through advertising. While websites containing content related to the sex trade would seemingly be potential defendants, efforts to end online human trafficking have been hampered by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA). Case law precedent largely supports broad immunity under Section 230 for websites as to content posted by third parties. Nonetheless, several cases have been brought under a narrow exception to Section 230 immunity which applies when a website owner materially contributes to the illegality of the posted content. It remains to be seen whether all human trafficking civil lawsuits against website owners will succumb to the immunity provision of Section 230.