Nearly two dozen women won $12.7 million in a fraud lawsuit against the owners and operators of a San Diego-based pornographic website, GirlsDoPorn, a Superior Court judge ruled Thursday.
Website owners Michael James Pratt, 36, and Matthew Isaac Wolfe, 37, and porn actor Ruben Andre Garcia, 31, were sued by 22 women who claimed they were deceived and coerced into making explicit sex films without knowing the images would be posted on the internet.
San Diego Superior Court Judge Kevin Enright, who presided over a four-month-long bench trial, decided in favor of all 22 plaintiffs and against 13 defendants.
Enright found that the individuals and various affiliated businesses had operated as a single business entity and therefore all were liable.
He awarded the women $9.45 million collectively in compensatory damages and $3.3 million in punitive damages.
The judge also granted the women’s request for ownership rights to their images that appeared on videos produced by the defendants and posted on several adult websites.
Further, he ordered the defendants to take down the women’s sex videos and take steps to get them off other porn sites they don’t control but allowed to post clips, ads or entire films.
The judge also ordered the GirlsDoPorn website owners to prominently post in recruitment ads that videos would go on the internet. Women who sign up to make the videos must get copies of the legal agreement ahead of time and give permission before their names or personal information are used.
“The money’s one thing but these guys have ruined [the plaintiffs’] lives and we have to clean this up as much as possible,” Ed Chapin, attorney for the women, said after the judge’s decision was issued.
Attorneys for the defense were not immediately available for comment.
In trial, defense attorneys argued that the women were over 18, understood what they were doing, accepted payment and in some cases returned to San Diego again and again to make more videos. The plaintiffs’ attorneys said the videos were not immediately posted on the internet and defendants later refused requests to take down the films.
Some of the women testified that although they agreed to perform sex on camera to earn money, including paying for college, the subsequent publicity ruined their lives and careers. At least one woman considered suicide.
The lawsuit, consolidated from several suits first filed in 2016, alleged fraud, breach of contract over distribution of the videos and misappropriation of the plaintiffs’ images. The women were identified in the suit only as “Jane Does 1-22.”
Enright heard the case from late August to late November without a jury.
Plaintiffs’ attorney Chapin, who has practiced law for 48 years, said he counted 99 days in trial, “probably the longest trial I’ve ever had.”
When attorneys finished with closing arguments, the judge took the matter under submission on Dec. 13. Chapin said Enright is giving attorneys additional time to file any objections to his rulings.
The civil case was interrupted at one point when Pratt, Wolfe, Garcia, company administrative assistant Valerie Moser and alleged accomplice Amberlyn Nored were charged in federal court with sex trafficking by force, fraud and coercion. Pratt, a New Zealand resident who disappeared after being indicted, also is charged with producing child pornography in 2012 involving a girl who was then 16.
Nored is accused in the criminal case of acting as a “reference woman” who would lie to the victims by saying she had performed in similar videos that were never posted online.
The men could face life in prison if convicted of the criminal charges.
The complaint filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the civil lawsuit both alleged that young women who applied online for modeling jobs as far back as 2015 were initially deceived about the true nature of the work — to appear in porn videos.
But after the women were flown to San Diego from their various home states to make the videos in hotels, the defendants allegedly lied, saying the films would be distributed on DVDs and only to private clients overseas, not on the internet.
During the civil trial, some of the women testified that once they arrived in San Diego, the defendants plied them with alcohol or marijuana and rushed them into signing away their rights over their own images.
The women were videotaped reading the agreement over distribution rights, but their lawyer said some of them were drunk at the time and didn’t understand what they were reading.
Then, the women alleged, they were victims of an orchestrated system of harassment, threats and public humiliation by defendants who made sure friends, family, college and work colleagues saw the online films.
Defense attorneys argued that Wolfe, Pratt and Garcia did not personally harass any of the women and were not responsible for “internet trolls” who did so.