A US judge has awarded $12.8m (£9.8m) to 22 unnamed women, ruling that they were tricked into appearing in widely distributed online porn videos.
Some of the models duped by the owners and operators of the GirlsDoPorn website had become suicidal, he said.
They were told the videos were for a private collector or overseas DVDs, according to the 181-page judgement.
The women – aged 18-23 when they shot the videos – were also assured the videos would never appear online.
But they were uploaded to GirlsDoPorn’s subscription-based amateur porn website, and clips were shared on some of the world’s most popular free-to-view adult websites.
San Diego Superior Court Judge Kevin Enright ordered GirlsDoPorn chief executive Michael Pratt, 36, videographer Matthew Wolfe, 37, and porn actor Ruben Garcia, 31, to take the videos down from GirlsDoPorn and take steps to get them removed from other sites too.
GirlsDoPorn markets itself on the premise that the women in the videos are not professional porn stars.
It claims to feature women filming their first and only porn videos, and many of the women on the site are students in need of extra money, according to court documents.
Due to the one-time-only amateur paradigm, GirlsDoPorn required a constant stream of new models to keep the content on the website fresh.
The San Diego court ruled that the site used fraudulent practices to recruit new models including taking “calculated steps to falsely assure prospective models that their videos will never be posted online, come to light in the United States, or be seen by anyone who might known them”.
The website operators had also assured models that their real names would never be linked to the videos.
However, the court heard evidence that the accused had shared private and identifying information about the models on third-party forums that resulted in some of them and their families, being harassed online.
In a bid to recruit new talent, GirlsDoPorn persuaded former models to text words of reassurance to prospective models who were worried that the videos might be posted online.
On the day of the shoot, models were often given alcohol and cannabis before being asked to sign an eight-page contract.
Judge Enright awarded the 22 women $9.48m in compensatory damages and $3.3m in punitive damages. Each woman will receive $300,000 to $550,000.
He said that the videos had become common knowledge to the women’s friends and family due to the tactics used by those behind GirlsDoPorn.
“As a result, plaintiffs have suffered and continue to suffer far-reaching and often tragic consequences,” he wrote.
“Collectively, they have experienced severe harassment, emotional and psychological trauma, and reputational harm; lost jobs, academic and professional opportunities and family and personal relationships; and had their lives derailed and uprooted,” he continued.
“They have become pariahs in their communities. Several plaintiffs have become suicidal.”
Judge Enright gave both sides 15 days to appeal against his decision.
‘My heart just wept’
The defendants also face criminal charges filed in federal court in October.
The allegations filed against them are the same as those in the civil case.
Wolfe and Garcia are currently in federal custody. Pratt is a fugitive believed to be in New Zealand, his home country.
“Our clients were real,” said Ed Chaplin, the lawyer representing the women, according to CourtHouseNews.
“They had similar stories because the defendants told the same lies to everyone,” he said.
“I sat and talked to a lot of women. My heart just wept for them, how their lives have been impacted by this and how they were sucked into doing what they did.
“The attitude these defendants expressed when the women complained [and] the scheme to shut them up was despicable.”
CourtHouseNews reported that lawyers for GirlsDoPorn declined to comment when approached.
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