In what advocates are calling a groundbreaking victory for victims of child sex tourism, a federal jury in Minneapolis has awarded $950,000 to a Laotian woman who claims she was raped and impregnated as a 14-year old by a Minneapolis man on an overseas junket.
Last Thursday’s verdict came after a fast-paced, three-day trial before U.S. District Court Judge Joan Ericksen, where the plaintiff, Panyia Vang, testified that Thiawachu Prataya sexually assaulted her at an arranged meeting in a hotel in Laos 11 years ago this month.
In his testimony, Prataya, a naturalized American citizen who was 44 years old at the time, claimed the sex was consensual.
In answers on a special verdict form, the jury of six women and two men unanimously agreed that that Prataya both forcibly raped Vang and that Vang was under the age of 16 at the time.
After Vang learned that she had become pregnant, Prataya took her as a second wife in a so-called “cultural marriage” in Laos. When the relationship ended, the couple became embroiled in a highly contentious custody fight in Minnesota courts.
Vang’s lawsuit hinged on a federal statute, Masha’s Law, that creates a civil cause of action for victims of a range of predicate sex crimes, including child sex tourism, child sex trafficking, and child pornography.
Although Masha’s Law has been on the books since 2006, it has rarely if ever been invoked in the context of a sex tourism lawsuit, according to Patrick Arenz, Vang’s lead trial counsel and a partner at the Robins Kaplan law firm.
“In the vast majority of cases, the victims remain in a foreign country without the means or the ability to pursue anything like this,” said Arenz.
That was not the case for Vang, who moved to Minnesota in 2009 — not as Prataya’s wife but as a “derivative beneficiary” of her father, who had previously been granted asylum in the U.S.
Arenz said that “unique fact pattern” was one of the reasons he took the pro bono case.
“It was an all-time professional high for me to have the privilege and honor of pursuing justice for Panyia Vang,” Arenz said.
Arenz, whose regular practice focuses on intellectual property litigation, said the trial was difficult for a number of reasons, including the fact that much of the testimony was in Hmong.
“From a trial lawyer’s perspective, it was a challenge to work through that amount of translation. There were times when we had to check to make sure that the witness and lawyer were on the same page,” he said.
Arenz declined to comment on Vang’s prospects for collecting the $950,000 judgment.
Arenz was assisted by Adam Kohnstamm, a colleague from Robins Kaplan, and Linda Miller, the executive director of Civil Society, a St. Paul-based nonprofit that works with the victims of sex crimes and domestic abuse.
Miller, whose representation of Yang began with the custody fight, originally filed the lawsuit in 2012. The litigation stalled after the parties were contacted by a Hollywood production company that was interested in showcasing the dispute in a new reality TV show, “Law & Order: You, the Jury.”
The suit returned to a more traditional trajectory after plans for the series were scuttled.
Over the past four years, Miller recruited lawyers from several different Twin Cities firms to work the case, including Bill Tilton of Tilton & Dunn, Michael O’Neill of Martin & Squires, and Pamela Abbate-Dattilo of Fredrikson & Byron. Miller said she tapped the Robins Kaplan team for the trial because of their skill and experience with federal litigation.
In Miller’s view, the jury’s verdict conveyed an important message.
“If you are a United States citizen, you are still bound by the laws of the United States when you go outside the country. You’re not free to do whatever that country thinks is OK or whatever that country has gotten used to,” she said.
According to Miller, Prataya expressed the opposite sentiment during a deposition when she asked him if he ever worried that Vang was underage. “He said, 12 or 13, the age doesn’t matter if the parents allow it,” Miller said. “That was a clear, clear statement and it was the first thing that Patrick mentioned in his final argument.”
Miller said Vang spent about five hours on the stand, while Prataya’s direct testimony lasted just 12 minutes. The “great contrast in detail” probably contributed to the jury’s verdict, she ventured.
In addition to the testimony from Vang and Prataya, jurors heard from a psychologist, who testified that Vang suffered from PTSD and anxiety “consistent with someone who experienced sexual assault as a child,” according to Arenz.
Der Yang, Prataya’s attorney, declined to comment publically on the verdict or her client’s plans going forward.
The most hotly contested issue at trial revolved around the question of Vang’s age.
Born at home in a remote village, Vang was not issued a birth certificate at the time and, at trial, even her mother testified that she did not know the year of her daughter’s birth.
However, other documents — including Vang’s visa application, green card, and Minnesota driver’s license — list her date of birth as August 8, 1991. That would have made her a little over 14 years old when she became pregnant with Prataya’s child.
Yang, Prataya’s lawyer, argued that Vang had motivation to change her birthdate to make herself appear younger because, in order to gain admittance to the U.S. as a beneficiary of her asylee father, she had to show that she was under 21.
In asserting paternity rights, Prataya signed documents that listed the 1991 birth date.