Human trafficking lawsuit FAQ: Civil justice a means to curb a global crisis | Causes, Not Just Cases®

Human trafficking, and the horror of its existence, are worldwide issues that we’re only just beginning to peel back the layers on. One thing we know is that those in leadership positions, including lawyers, legislators, law enforcement and others, are in a position to fight for the freedoms and rights of survivors who so often can’t or don’t feel comfortable speaking out for themselves. My colleague Dan Lapinski and I recently joined some of the nation’s foremost leaders on sex abuse and trafficking to discuss ways to ease access to justice for survivors and prevent others from being victims of such horrible atrocities. Read more on the symposium, which was held by Charleston Law Review and titled “Sexual Abuse and Sex Trafficking: Protecting Children, Supporting Victims, and Seeking Justice.”

As many reaffirmed during the symposium, educating the public is key to uprooting misconceptions about what trafficking and abuse truly look like, the staggering number of individuals who are trapped in the cycle, and how survivors can seek recourse and accountability.

Human trafficking is a $150 billion a year criminal industry, $99 billion of which comes from commercial sexual exploitation. That’s more than half that comes from commercial entities.

The numbers are even more sobering when you consider that trafficking for labor and sexual exploitation are notoriously underreported, partially because victims and witnesses may be threatened or fear retaliation by traffickers. Fortunately, legislatures continue to enact stricter laws to combat human trafficking and by allowing survivors to sue, our civil justice system helps spotlight this topic of global concern.

In the United States, the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2003 (TVPRA) gives victims the right to sue labor traffickers. The 2008 TVPRA expanded the list of trafficking victims who can sue in federal court to include sex trafficking survivors. It also allows victims to sue “whoever knowingly benefits, financially or by receiving anything of value” from the trafficking crimes committed against them. Traffickers and the trafficking enablers who helped and supported them can be sued in U.S. federal courts even if they don’t live in the United States.

If you or a loved one needs help, you may contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline by phone at (888) 373-7888 or text 233733. If a survivor wants to seek justice for human trafficking, filing a civil lawsuit under the TVPRA or state laws can be a way to do so. Plaintiffs’ lawyers with experience in civil litigation can discuss survivors’ legal options in the civil justice system or help those who wish to share first-hand information regarding traffickers and trafficking enablers that could contribute to a civil investigation.

Below are some answers to frequently asked questions about human trafficking civil litigation: 

Human Trafficking Civil Litigation FAQ:

What does “human trafficking” really mean?

Human trafficking involves “the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act,” According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Exploitation is key to discerning whether someone is being trafficked and does not depend on being forcibly moved across state or national borders against their will.  While trafficking victims often are smuggled, they don’t have to be and someone can be trafficked even if they were not   moved from their home country, state, or home. Read more on trafficking myths and misconceptions.

What industries could be involved in human trafficking?

When people hear trafficking, sex trafficking may often come to mind as those cases tend to be more high-profile. However, no industry is exempt from using workers against their will. Industries alleged to benefit from forced labor include:

  • Agriculture
  • Caregiving
  • Child care
  • Construction
  • Domestic work
  • Drug Smuggling and distribution
  • Fairs and carnivals
  • Hospitality (restaurants, hotels)
  • Janitorial services
  • Massage parlors
  • Prostitution
  • Salon services
  • Traveling sales  

How does a civil lawsuit differ from a criminal case?

Unlike criminal court, which punishes those who break criminal laws, the civil judicial system allows people to seek accountability from wrongdoers by suing them and, if a lawsuit is successful, provide plaintiffs injunctive relief such as changing the way businesses operate and/or paying them financial compensation for their damages. Civil human trafficking lawsuits seek to hold traffickers and trafficking enablers accountable for the horrors their victims suffered and the damage done to them. Survivors who litigate may also: help uncover new details about the alleged trafficking enterprise through an investigation, spur legislative attention to the need for reforms and new or stronger laws, and/or deter other traffickers and their enablers from further engaging in or enabling trafficking, helping prevent the creation of new victims.

Does a trafficker need to be criminally convicted in order to be sued?

No, traffickers do not need to be criminally convicted in order for victims to file a civil lawsuit against them.

How can civil litigation help human trafficking victims?

Civil litigation can combat human trafficking because it may:

  • Discourage would-be traffickers
  • Uncover details previously unknown through a thorough investigation
  • Encourage witnesses to report suspicious behavior
  • Empower victims to confront or escape traffickers and/or
  • Provide the means necessary to assist victims’ recovery and restitution

If a survivor is worried about their safety or privacy, can they remain anonymous if they come forward with their experience?

Laws differ by state, but if victims want to remain anonymous and file a lawsuit, a human trafficking lawyer can seek an order from the court to protect their identity if the laws where the lawsuit is filed don’t already grant such protections. Either way, a lawyer will not identify their client publicly without their permission. 

What is a statute of limitations and how could it affect a potential case?

A statute of limitations is the amount of time available for someone to file a legal claim; after it has passed the claim is forever barred. Statutes of limitation vary by state and type of case. For example, if someone was the victim of trafficking in 1999, many states may prohibit them from filing a claim because it arose from wrongdoing that occurred more than 20 years ago. On the other hand, some jurisdictions have enacted temporary look-back windows that might allow a lawsuit to be filed.

Does a person have to be a current victim of trafficking to file a claim?

No. Civil litigation is not limited to just people who are currently being trafficked. Often, once victims are able to escape their traffickers and have had some time to process the abuse they experienced, they are more emotionally able to pursue litigation. A human trafficking lawyer can help survivors navigate the statute of limitations for their potential claims and evaluate if they are eligible to file a lawsuit.

How could contacting a human trafficking lawyer benefit a survivor or a loved one who was trafficked?

Pursuing a legal claim is a complex, sometimes confusing, process that can take years from start to finish. A knowledgeable, caring lawyer with experience in human trafficking can provide legal guidance and advice to survivors to help them decide what steps to take with the survivors’ specific needs and goals in mind.

Resources are available if you or someone you know is being trafficked and needs help escaping their situation. Click here for more information.   

For more information on how the civil justice system can help victims of sexual abuse, read my colleague Dan Lapinski’s blog, “Child sexual abuse litigation FAQ: ‘Lookback window’ laws give voice to victims.”

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