Court ruling clarifies how child pornography victims collect damages

A recent ruling by the 5 th Circuit Court of Appeals redefines the circumstances under which victims of child pornography may be awarded restitution. The ruling may change the outcomes of pending civil action against those convicted of viewing child pornography, though the decision will likely be appealed and challenged in the Supreme Court.

Current federal child pornography statutes

Federal statute 2259 allows victims of child pornography to collect restitution for the “full amount” of the losses they suffer as a result of their abuses, including medical costs, costs of rehabilitation and psychological care, lost income and attorneys’ fees. Under the law, courts cannot decline to award restitution due to a defendant’s inability to pay or the fact that the victim has received insurance or other payments to cover his or her care.

The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision and case history

The recent decision by the court interprets the federal statute to allow victims of child pornography to pursue damages from people viewing their abuse – in other words, those who viewed photos or videos of child pornography – without having to prove a connection between the defendants’ viewing of the abuse and the victim’s injuries. Because this ruling overturns several circuit court decisions across the country, it will likely be appealed to the Supreme Court.

In the case that led to the Court of Appeals’ decision, one plaintiff brought suit against two men who had viewed pornography of her as a child. The plaintiff, now in her 20s, had been abused by her uncle, who distributed the images. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children believes at least 35,000 images of the plaintiff’s abuse exist. Over 3,000 child pornography cases in the last decade and a half have included images of the plaintiff, and she has been awarded restitution ranging from $100 to $3.3 million in 174 cases.

The plaintiff pursued $3.3 million in damages from each of two defendants to cover lost income, psychological care and attorneys’ fees that arose out of her injuries as a child pornography victim. A federal judge rejected her claims against the first defendant, but awarded her $529,661 out of the $3.3 million pursued from the second defendant to cover her estimated costs of treatment and the fee for her expert witness.

The second defendant argued that since the plaintiff did not know that he personally viewed the images, she could not collect damages. However, the court ruled that the defendant was still required to pay damages regardless of the plaintiff’s knowledge of his personal viewing of the plaintiff’s abuse.

The impact the ruling may have on pending child pornography cases

The court’s ruling may have a negative effect on those convicted of viewing child pornography. Now, victims of these offenders may be able to pursue compensation without making the connection between an individual defendant’s viewing and the victim’s injuries. This interpretation was contentious even within the court itself, with dissenting judges arguing that the federal statute does not allow restitution to be collected without proving a connection between an individual’s viewing of abuse and the abuse itself.

Those who have been convicted of viewing child pornography should pay particular attention to developments in this case and consult with their criminal defense lawyers to understand how the ruling may affect them.