Handing Facebook a partial defeat, the highest court in Texas refused to dismiss a lawsuit by sex-trafficking victims who allege the company facilitated their abuse as teenagers.
Facebook had argued it was protected from liability by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which generally shields companies from lawsuits based on activity by users.
The Texas Supreme Court said Friday that Section 230 only requires dismissal of some of the claims against Facebook, but not ones centered on its own "affirmative acts."
A Facebook spokesperson says the company is reviewing the decision and considering its next steps.
“Sex trafficking is abhorrent and not allowed on Facebook," the spokesperson adds. "We will continue our fight against the spread of this content and the predators who engage in it.”
The decision stems from lawsuits by three people who said they were sexually abused as teenagers after meeting perpetrators through Facebook or Instagram.
The victims made a host of claims, including that Facebook violated a state law that imposes liability on companies that intentionally or knowingly benefit from a sex-trafficking venture.
Facebook contended it was entitled to a prompt dismissal of the lawsuit, due to Section 230. That law has protected numerous web companies -- including Backpage and Craigslist -- from lawsuits over users' posts, including cases brought by abuse victims.
A trial judge disagreed with Facebook and ruled that the case could move forward. Facebook then appealed to the state's highest court.
Justice James Blacklock said in a 33-page ruling that Facebook was immune from several of the victims' claims, but not from the allegation that it violated a state sex trafficking law.
“While many of plaintiffs’ allegations accuse Facebook of failing to act as plaintiffs believe it should have, the ... claims also allege overt acts by Facebook encouraging the use of its platforms for sex trafficking,” Blacklock wrote.
He referenced allegations that Facebook created “a breeding ground for sex traffickers to stalk and entrap survivors,” that the company “knowingly aided, facilitated and assisted sex traffickers,” and that it “uses the detailed information it collects and buys on its users to direct users to persons they likely want to meet.”
“Read liberally in plaintiffs’ favor, these statements may be taken as alleging affirmative acts by Facebook to encourage unlawful conduct on its platforms,” he wrote.
“Whether the plaintiffs can prove such a claim against Facebook is not at issue,” the opinion states. “At this early stage of these cases, we take the plaintiffs’ allegations as true and construe them liberally against dismissal.”