On June 25, 2021, the Supreme Court of Texas ruled that three human trafficking victims can proceed with their statutory human trafficking claims against Facebook. In the 6-0 decision, the court conditionally granted Facebook’s petition for mandamus relief in part and denied in part. The court dismissed the victim’s claims for negligence, gross negligence, negligent undertaking, and products liability, stating that they are barred by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. However, the Court allowed three human trafficking claims under Section 98.002 of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code to proceed. Under Section 98.002, parties may be held liable for intentionally or knowingly benefitting from participation in a venture that traffics another person.
The plaintiffs in all three cases allege that they were victims of sex trafficking who met their traffickers through social media platforms owned by Facebook. The contacts occurred via a Facebook-messaging app when the victims were between 14 and 16 years old. The traffickers engaged in “grooming” behaviors with the minor victims, promising love and a better future. Eventually, the traffickers used other popular online forums, such as Instagram and Backpage.com, to advertise the teenagers for commercial sex. One plaintiff states she was “raped, beaten, and forced into further sex trafficking.” Based on these allegations, the victims filed suit against Facebook. The lawsuits specifically allege that Facebook owed a duty to exercise reasonable care to protect the victims from recruitment by sex traffickers on their platform. The victims state Facebook breached this duty by knowingly facilitating sex trafficking, in turn creating “a breeding ground for sex traffickers.” The victims further claim that Facebook profited from allowing sex traffickers to use their platform.
Lower Court Decision
The underlying cases, originally filed in the District Court in Harris County, Texas, alleged that Facebook financially benefited from sexual exploitation of the minor victims. The plaintiffs asserted that Facebook acted negligently by failing to protect users from traffickers and predators on its site. Conversely, representatives for Facebookargued the platform is protected from civil litigation under Section 230(c) of the Communications Decency Act, “a law that states online platforms are not responsible or held liable for third-party content on the site.” Based on Section 230, the social media network claimed Facebook was not responsible for what users do on its site.
In all three lawsuits, Facebook moved under Rule 91a of the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure to dismiss all claims as barred by Section 230. Rule 91a requires dismissal of a claim if an action has “no basis in law or fact.” The motions were denied in relevant part by the district courts. Facebook then sought mandamus relief in the court of appeals. There, a divided panel denied relief without substantive explanation. As a result, Facebook petitioned the Supreme Court of Texas for writs of mandamus.
Texas Supreme Court Decision
The question before the Texas Supreme Court was whether the district courts abused their discretion by denying Facebook’s motions to dismiss based on Section 230. In the opinion, delivered by Justice Jimmy Blacklock, the Supreme Court ruled the district courts did abuse their discretion by failing to grant Facebook’s motions to dismiss the plaintiffs’ common-law claims. Consequently, the Supreme Court dismissed the victim’s claims for negligence, gross negligence, negligent undertaking, and products liability, stating that they are barred by Section 230.
However, the Court also ruled that the claims brought under Section 98.002 of the Civil Practice and Remedies Code could move forward, due to Section 230 exceptions created by Congress in 2018. The exceptions permit civil lawsuits against media platforms “for violations of state and federal human trafficking laws.” The Court further declared Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act “does not protect Facebook from liability for intentional participation in human trafficking which the plaintiffs alleged in their original lawsuits.” The Court stated they do not view Section 230 as creating “a lawless no-man’s-land on the internet.” Thus, the Court ruled that a statutory claim for knowingly or intentionally benefiting from participation in a human trafficking venture is not barred by section 230 and the victims’ cases may proceed to further litigation.
One of the three trafficking victim’s lawyers, Annie McAdams, of Annie McAdams PC, stated: “Our clients have fought for over two years for the chance to bring their case. While we have a long road ahead, we are grateful that the Texas Supreme Court will allow these courageous trafficking survivors to have their day in court against Facebook. With the help of Chapter 98 protection, we believe trafficking survivors in Texas can expose and hold accountable businesses such as Facebook that benefit from these crimes of exploitation.” Following the decision, Facebook stated it is currently “reviewing the decision and considering potential next steps.” They also stated that the company condemns sex trafficking and vows to “continue (their) fight against the spread of this content and the predators who engage in it.”
For over a decade, Section 230 has served as a shield for internet service providers. The precedent set by the Supreme Court of Texas in this decision could have an impact beyond these three lawsuits. The ruling is significant for the victims in this case, and for other victims who are contemplating civil litigation against online media platforms, as it allows the civil lawsuits against Facebook to proceed for allegedly “failing to stop sexual predators from using its messaging services to recruit them.” The Texas Supreme Court ruling allowing litigation against Facebook to proceed pressures online networks to reform their outdated policies. If social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter can no longer hide behind Section 230 and claim immunity from civil litigation, they will be forced to take measures to protect their users from further recruitment by sex traffickers. Hopefully, the Texas Supreme Court’s decision is just the beginning of a trend towards allowing victims of sex trafficking to seek civil remedies against social media giants.
The CSE Institute commends the Supreme Court of Texas for allowing the civil claims against Facebook to proceed. Facebook, Instagram, and Backpage are not above the law and should be held accountable for the role they play in sex trafficking. We hope to see other courts across the country follow the precedent set by this opinion by allowing other victims to seek civil remedies against the platforms that facilitated their recruitment into sex trafficking. The CSE Institute will provide updates as they become available.