Two teenage girls who said they were sold for sex on Backpage.com in Pierce County sued the company, its leaders and their alleged pimps Wednesday.
At the same time, the local attorneys handling the case brought similar suits on behalf of other young women in California, Texas and Alabama.
The legal action follows a congressional report earlier this month that found Backpage hid evidence of sex trafficking by editing words such as “little girl” out of online ads. After the report, the company shut down the adult section of its website.
“That’s all just come to a head in the last couple of weeks,” said Jason Amala, an attorney representing the young women. “I think you’re going to see more of these cases now.”
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Amala said he hopes other victims of sex trafficking, former Backpage employees and pimps who think their ads were edited will come forward.
“There’s a momentum that’s going now after the (congressional) report,” he said.
An attorney who appears to represent Backpage regarding the investigation, conducted by a U.S. Senate subcommittee, did not respond to a News Tribune request for comment Wednesday.
The two girls bringing the Pierce County lawsuit are identified in the complaint only by their initials, R.O and K.M.
They said they were about 14 and 16 when they were victims of sex trafficking, and contend Backpage helped facilitate the abuse by moderating the online ads to make it less obvious the posts were for sex.
R.O. was advertised for sex on the website from about October 2014 until December 2015; K.M. was advertised from about January to February in 2015.
The lawsuit alleges Backpage — whose revenues the suit says amounted to $135 million in 2014 — profited from the ads.
It also contends the company didn’t take enough steps to prevent the trafficking of minors, such as requiring photo identification before posting ads to make sure the subject was at least 18.
Amala said he thinks the lawsuits filed Wednesday are the first to specifically name Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer and two of the company’s owners, James Larkin and Michael Lacey.
However, it’s not the first time the company has been sued.
Amala’s law firm and attorney Erik Bauer, who jointly filed Wednesday’s lawsuit, also sued Backpage in 2012 on behalf of three girls who alleged they were sold for sex on the site.
Backpage argued the case should be dismissed, because a federal law, the Communications Decency Act, gives immunity to websites regarding third-party content.
The case went to the Washington State Supreme Court, which decided it should not be dismissed. It’s scheduled for trial in Pierce County Superior Court in May.
A similar suit was filed in Pierce County in 2013 on behalf of another young woman, and has been stayed pending the outcome of the 2012 case.