Arkansas House panel approves bill for civil action against human trafficking

FILE — The state Capitol is shown in this undated file photo.
FILE — The state Capitol is shown in this undated file photo.

A bill intended to strengthen state law permitting victims of human trafficking to bring civil cases against people or businesses who facilitated their abuse advanced from the House Committee on Judiciary on Tuesday.

Senate Bill 282, which would allow civil action against a person or entity that "knew or should have known" of instances of human trafficking, passed the panel in a voice vote without audible dissent. The measure heads to the full House for further consideration.

Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, said her bill could help hold accountable businesses, including hotels and motels that allow human trafficking to occur.

Under current state law, an entity or person may only be held liable if they "know" human trafficking is occurring, said Meredith Moore, a civil attorney who presented the bill alongside Irvin.

"If you're an establishment that is profiting off of human trafficking, you no longer can turn a blind eye and ignore it," Irvin said. "You have to be a proactive partner in helping us defeat it."

The bill also would apply to persons or entities that caused, "was responsible for, or benefited financially or received anything of value from the human trafficking incident."

Irvin noted the measure would mirror federal anti-trafficking standards and would not make any substantive changes to businesses already regulated by these standards.

The bill would allow litigants to file suits under Arkansas law without having to meet criminal law standards. The legislation would protect hotels and motels against insurance policy coverage exclusion based on intentional conduct, Irvin said.

SB 282 also would specify that a person determined to be a victim of human trafficking is not at fault for being trafficked.

"To hold [victims] at fault allows those prospering from his or her victimization to shift the blame off of them and onto the victims," Irvin said. "That's not right."

While bringing lawsuits against businesses accused of facilitating human trafficking, Moore said defense attorneys had claimed her clients were in part responsible for the abuse.

She pointed to a case where she said her client was a 6-year-old girl who was repeatedly raped at a motel. After proving the child was a victim of human trafficking, Moore said she still had to show her client was not at fault.

"The fact that a victim of trafficking can be blamed is a huge issue with this statute," she said.

David Donovan, an attorney with the Arkansas Association of Defense Counsel, spoke against the bill, saying it would override the state's comparative fault system for determining civil cases. Under this doctrine, juries must consider the fault of both the defendant and the plaintiff. Any award the plaintiff receives is reduced relative to their share of the fault.

Donovan said it would be a bad defense to argue that a 6-year-old girl was at fault for being trafficked. But he pointed to other cases that might involve a "life-long prostitute, sometimes under the control of others, sometimes as a consensual sex worker" where a defense attorney might use comparative fault.

"I guarantee you that if this legislation is passed, you will have persons suing under this statute who then cannot have their own conduct or fault considered," he said. "If that happens, you will have a blank check given to plaintiffs suing Arkansas businesses."

Donovan urged lawmakers to allow juries to decide these human trafficking cases. While he said the bill was well-intentioned, he said it would be litigated if it passed.

Irvin and Moore said attorneys would still have to prove a plaintiff is a victim of human trafficking. A victim of human trafficking generally must be found to have faced "fraud, force and coercion," Irvin said.

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