Laotian Victim of Sex Tourism Awarded Almost $1 Million in US Court
In an unprecedented judgement, a woman raped as a teen by an American visiting Laos, was awarded $950,000 by a federal jury. Her lawyers, Linda Miller and Patrick Arenz, spoke with TRNN about this groundbreaking outcome
KIM BROWN: Welcome to The Real News Network in Baltimore. I’m Kim Brown. Let’s talk about sex tourism, the practice of vacationing to a state or a country for the purpose of taking advantage of the lack of restrictions imposed on prostitution and other sexual activities by some foreign nations. Now, sex tourism happens right here in America. Hawaii, for example, has recently passed a law criminalizing travel agents who arrange sex vacations for tourists, but sex tourism is very pronounced in Asia, the Caribbean, and Latin America, especially with westerners who travel there to commit pedophilia and have sex with those who are underage. Oftentimes, for those groups, there are little to no protections and certainly no penalties for the foreigners who partake in that behavior until now.
A landmark settlement was handed down by a federal jury in Minneapolis, Minnesota earlier this month awarding a woman named Paniya Vang from Laos nearly $1 million after she was raped by an American in her home country. This is the first judgment ever in a civil case involving sex tourism. Today, we are joined with the attorneys representing Miss Vang in this unprecedented outcome. We’re joined today with Linda Miler. She is an attorney. She is also the Founder and Executive Director of Civil Society, which is a Minnesota based nonprofit that provides legal and case management services to victims of human trafficking, sexual assault and abuse. She has 30 years experience dealing with the underserved and frequently victimized populations and she speaks internationally on the topic of international human trafficking victim service prevision.
We’re also joined with Patrick Arenz. He is a trial lawyer at Robins Kaplan, which is a national trial firm with more than 220 attorneys in eight offices nationwide, and he serves as the chair of the firm’s pro bono. He litigates and tries high stakes cases involving patent infringement and intellectual property license disputes. He has dedicated his time to pro bono work to support individuals who cannot otherwise afford representation. They’re joining us today from Minneapolis. Thank you both for joining us on The Real News.
PATRICK ARENZ: Thank you, Kim.
LINDA MILLER: Thank you, Kim.
KIM BROWN: We’re going to start with Linda. Because Linda, as I understand, you have been dealing with Miss Vang’s case since 2012. How did this case even … Wait. Let’s back up for a moment. Let’s go over the details of this case because Miss Vang, Miss Paniya Vang, was a 14-year-old girl living in Laos when she was contacted or made contact with this American who’s name was Thiawachu Prataya, who traveled to Laos and sexually assaulted her. Linda, can you tell us what happened?
LINDA MILLER: Well, yes. That was exactly right. He contacted her and called her repeatedly and promised her lots of money and said he was very wealthy and that he was going to bring her beautiful clothing, necklace, and shoes. She was a child from a small, small village 12 hours away from the capital city in Laos and very poor, like getting one outfit a year. This was tantalizing to her. He arranged for someone take her to the capital city and supposedly for recording a song on CDs. Then, instead of giving her those things, he did give her those things eventually, but he raped her [inaudible 00:04:14].
KIM BROWN: Did Miss Vang know that this is what Mr. Prataya’s intentions were, to come to Laos in exchange for a sexual encounter?
LINDA MILLER: Her testimony, and I believe her 100%, is that she had no idea that and it was never discussed.
KIM BROWN: How did this case first come to your attention? Both Patrick and Linda feel free to answer.
LINDA MILLER: Well, I worked a [Hmong 00:04:48] women’s group who brought me many Hmong clients and Paniya Vang was one of them. She was in the United States a that time because the wave occurred in Laos. She became pregnant and gave birth in Laos and then later her father brought her mother and her sister and her to the United States on an [asylee 00:05:19] unification Visa. That’s why she was in the United States. She was trying to get … She was hysterical, actually, when they brought her. She was trying to get legal representation to protect her from this man.
PATRICK ARENZ: Then, the federal case started around in 2012. There was a long pretrial period with it. Ultimately a trial date was set, Linda contacted Robin Kaplan and contacted me largely because it’s in our firm’s DNA to ensure access to justice, even for those who can’t afford it. As you mentioned at the outset, I am chair of our firm’s pro bono committee and this case had all the hallmarks of attributes we look to in terms of deciding which cases to accept, especially because it hadn’t been done before. It was for a very deserving client and it was a case that I knew I couldn’t say no to.
KIM BROWN: Linda’s already answered the question, Patrick. I’m curious what was it about Miss Vang’s story that you found credible?
PATRICK ARENZ: I just chuckle a little bit because every trial the judge instructs the jury almost right out the gate that anything the lawyer says is not evidence, and so I’m not used to having people turn to me to ask what was credible or not. I think what the best way to answer that question really is to look at that through the prism of the evidence that was presented to the jury. There were two main questions on liability that the jury was asked to answer. Was Paniya Vang under 16 at the time of the assault? Was the sexual intercourse consensual or was it forced? On the issue of the age, we were able to offer evidence of kind of an unbroken chain of documents, official documents from Laos, from the United States, arranging from passports to Visas to driver’s license to green cards that all collaborated and confirmed that she would’ve been 14 at the time of the assault.
We had a robust set of documentary evidence to prove her age. As far as whether on the issue of consent or force, that was largely an issue of competing testimony. When you look at the record at trial, Paniya Vang took the stand for over five hours and she testified in painstaking detail as to what happened and was able to describe in detail how it happened. In contrast, the defendant Mr. Prataya testified on examination for about 12 minutes and was very general in his denials, but didn’t offer any details. He was very stoic in his emotion. In contrast, Paniya Vang, she testified in Hmong, so it was translated. If you were in that courtroom, even if you couldn’t understand Hmong, you could tell the emotion she was speaking with was an emotion that could not be manufactured or could not be made up and very powerful.
LINDA MILLER: That’s totally true. The only interesting thing about the trial, I think, is we had a lot of photos from Laos showing the poverty of her village and her home and showing these pictures actually were used also to prove her age because she was standing there with her little sister, whose birthday was not contested ever. The little sister was obviously one and she was obviously two.
KIM BROWN: We are speaking with Patrick Arenz and Linda Miller. They are attorneys representing Paniya Vang, who is a Laotian woman who was awarded nearly $1 million by a federal jury in connection to a rape she experienced at the hand of an American in her home country. This settlement is the first of its kind where a victim of sex tourism has been able to recoup damages in a civil American court. Stay with us. We’ll be right back for part two of our conversation right here on The Real News.
KIM BROWN: Welcome back to The Real News. I’m Kim Brown. I’m still joined on the line with Linda Miller and Patrick Arenz. They are both attorneys representing Panyia Vang. This is a woman who was raped by an American in her home country of Laos and was able to recoup damages. She was awarded almost $1 millions by a federal jury in connection to her sexual assault.
Patrick and Linda, again, obviously, this is unprecedented. We’ve not seen an outcome like this on behalf of a victim of sex tourism. I’m curious because, what were some of the legal strategies that you employed here, or if there are any precedents here because as you mentioned, the man who Miss Vang says raped her, Mr. Prataya, he had not been charged criminally in connection to raping Miss Vang. So what kind of legal outlay were you able to provide the jury that caused them to find in Miss Vang’s favor?
PATRICK ARENZ: The elements of a sex tourism claim are pretty straight forward, Kim. Basically, any United States citizen or a permanent U.S. resident who travels from the United States to a foreign country to engage in illicit sexual conduct can be found liable of sex tourism. So it’s not so much that the legal elements were in dispute, but I think one thing that will be helpful for cases going forward is that the court made a couple of findings pre-trial, which clarify a couple of important attributes.
One is that because this was a civil case, the burden of proof on the plaintiff was a preponderance of evidence, as opposed to what everyone’s familiar with in a criminal case in terms of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. So a preponderance of the evidence standard’s much lower.
Number two is that the foreign country’s laws are irrelevant to the jury’s determination, so whether or not a foreign country permits or does not permit a defendant to have illicit sexual conduct in that country does not matter and does not factor into the jury’s determination.
Then, finally, and this was a little bit specific to this case, but there’s an exception in the Federal Rules of Evidence. It’s generally pretty difficult to bring in past convictions of a defendant, that’s generally not admissible, but there’s an exception for past convictions or past sexual assaults in Rule 415 in Federal Rules of Evidence. So we were able to bring in a past conviction that the defendant had previously been convicted of sexual assault in Minnesota before, and that was something the jury could consider also.
KIM BROWN: Patrick, what rule did, what role rather, did Masha’s Law play in your strategy?
PATRICK ARENZ: Masha’s Law is the statute that creates a civil cause of action. In the United States Code, there are a series of criminal statutes that penalize and prohibit a number of criminal acts, whether it’s child pornography, whether it’s sex trafficking, or in this case, sex tourism. There’s a companion statute that says anyone who’s a victim of those crimes can bring a civil cause of action, a civil case in federal court.
It gets its name because Masha was a Russian orphan who was taken into a home of a man in Pittsburgh and was ultimately victimized through child pornography, and this statute was amended in 2006 in her name to make it easier to pursue a civil cause of action in any type of case like that.
LINDA MILLER: One thing I wanted to emphasize is that the requirement for showing for the liability is that the U.S. citizen traveled to another country and raped a child, not to rape a child. So we didn’t have to prove that he traveled there in order to rape this child, just that he traveled there and he raped the child.
KIM BROWN: Linda, you have been working with Panyia hands-on, really, since 2011. This has been five to six years in the making. I’m curious, first of all, are there any other types of cases that you are pursuing in this way? Because sex tourism is a multi-billion dollar business. There are people that take vacations to other countries specifically to engage in this type of behavior of raping children and committing acts of pedophilia, et cetera. Do we expect to see more cases like the one you just won in federal court regarding trying to recoup compensation for immeasurable damages done to these victims?
LINDA MILLER: It will be very interesting to see what develops. This is not the only subdivision of the Criminal Code that can be enforced under Masha’s Law, so we may not see this exact fact situation, but we may see the others start coming through.
PATRICK ARENZ: I think one thing that’s unique about this case and one of the reasons we haven’t seen more cases in U.S. federal courts about sex tourism is that, in most instances, the victim will reside overseas, will reside in a foreign country, and just as a practical matter, will lack any access to the federal justice system or access to lawyers to be able to pursue such a claim. Here, Panyia Vang had immigrated to the United States in conjunction with her father’s asylum, so she was in the United States and ultimately obtained access to counsel. I think that’s a key differentiating point. Hopefully, we will have access to more victims and pursue more cases like this.
KIM BROWN: I understand that Miss Vang declined to comment and make herself available to the press, which is completely understandable, but I am curious, how is she doing? Obviously, she has a new life here in the United States, and you mentioned earlier that she became pregnant as a result of her rape. Was she forced to bear her rapist’s child?
LINDA MILLER: I don’t think that question was ever in her mind, whether she was going to have the baby or not. She’s, of course, residing in a country that doesn’t have as many medical education programs as we do in the United States, so I don’t think she ever even considered not having the baby.
In terms of her suffering, it was significant because of the mores of the culture that she was in, especially in that rural area, and because of the isolation she felt [inaudible 00:07:56] giving birth, and then having to raise a child when she is still a child. So the suffering was immense and still suffering when I saw her because she was so afraid of the defendant.
She was genuinely a victim then, but through over these years, because of all the support from many organizations, from my organization, from other people and the media actually, that she became a very, very powerful speaker on behalf of girls that are being raped over in other countries. So now, she is a survivor. You may know that in theories about victims, when they have a reach of time period in which it helps them to go forward in their life by speaking out, that is when they’re surviving, and she’s a survivor.
KIM BROWN: Have there been any challenges by her rapist to the amount that he has been now ordered to pay her? Is this judgment likely to stand?
PATRICK ARENZ: The court did enter judgment on the verdict. The defendant will have a time period to file post-trial motions and file a notice of appeal if he chooses. I think it’s a little premature to comment further on that at this time.
KIM BROWN: You would probably expect him to appeal this.
PATRICK ARENZ: The ball’s in his court on that issue.
KIM BROWN: Indeed. Do we have any idea as to when Miss Vang might actually receive her settlement or this is still in the works and still probably a little bit of ways away?
PATRICK ARENZ: It all depends on the timing of how certain motions play out or how an appeal plays out, but ultimately, if the judgment is affirmed, then we’d be looking at working as hard as we can to execute on that judgment. But whether that’s several months or over a year, it’s always hard to tell.
KIM BROWN: Linda, given that you advocated represent for victims of this type of abuse, have you received more inquiries? Have more victims reached out to you after the announcement of this decision was made public?
LINDA MILLER: Yes. I already had an inquiry today.
KIM BROWN: Do you expect that more people, more victims, even here domestically because we know that sex tourism is absolutely not limited to Westerners traveling abroad. As I mentioned in my intro, Hawaii just recently passed a law precluding travel agents from arranging vacations specifically designed around sex tourism and criminalized it. I think the penalty is up to five years in jail.
So are we seeing movement here stateside at least and at least acknowledging that sex tourism and human trafficking and sex trafficking is without question an epidemic in the United States and moving towards making sure that these victims have some sort of protections or means to recoup some damages?
LINDA MILLER: Several states already have statutes like the one in Hawaii, but we don’t in Minnesota, but we’ve already been contacted by a state representative who is interested in putting that forth in the next legislative session.
KIM BROWN: I have to commend the both of you for taking on this case and for getting this, so far, unprecedented settlement for the victim of this horrible attack that she suffered, so we absolutely hope to keep in touch and to see that the outcome is hopefully favorable for Miss Vang. We appreciate the work that you both have done on her behalf.
PATRICK ARENZ: Thank you very much, Kim.
LINDA MILLER: Thank you, Kim.
KIM BROWN: We’ve been speaking with Linda Miller. She is an attorney. She’s also the founder and executive director of Civil Society, which is a Minnesota-based non-profit that provides legal assistance for victims of sex trafficking and sexual abuse. We’ve also been speaking with Patrick Arenz. He is a trial lawyer at the firm Robins Kaplan. Thank you both for joining us here today.
PATRICK ARENZ: Thank you for having us.
LINDA MILLER: Thank you.
KIM BROWN: And thank you for watching and supporting The Real News Network.