Washington Court Rules Against Backpage, Allows Sex Trafficking Victims To Sue

In a blow to Backpage, Washington's Supreme Court has refused to dismiss a lawsuit against the company by three minors who say they were raped by adults who responded to ads on the site.

The ruling is at odds with otherdecisions that have held Backpage, Craigslist and other sites are immune from civil lawsuits based on crimes by users. Most recently, this May U.S. District Court Judge Richard Stearns in Boston dismissed a lawsuit by sex trafficking victims against Backpage.

The minors in the Washington state matter sued Backpage.com in state court for negligence, sexual exploitation of children, unjust enrichment, invasion of privacy, sexual assault and battery, and civil conspiracy, among other counts.

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Backpage asked for the lawsuit to be dismissed at an early stage, arguing that the federal Communications Decency Act immunizes Web services companies from liability for acts by users.

But the Washington Supreme Court ruled that the Communications Decency Act doesn't protect Web sites that "develop" objectionable content, as opposed to sites that merely "host" the content.

The court said that Backpage couldn't get the case dismissed at an early stage, because there were factual questions about whether the company developed the ads.

"It is important to ascertain whether in fact Backpage designed its posting rules to induce sex trafficking," Judge Steven Charles Gonzalez wrote for the majority.

Judge Gordon McCloud dissented from the ruling. "Holding Backpage liable would punish it for publishing third party content, and the [Communications Decency Act] prohibits such liability," he wrote.

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