Washington: For months, a Texas woman's ex-boyfriend spread intimate images of her across various corners of the internet, she claimed in a lawsuit filed against him last year. He created a website, a publicly accessible Dropbox folder and fake social media profiles to disseminate the explicit photos, the lawsuit alleged.
The man obtained some of the images by accessing security cameras in the woman's home, her attorneys told The Washington Post. He also shared the images by email and on a adult website, according to the lawsuit.
"You will spend the rest of your life trying and failing to wipe yourself off the internet," the man allegedly said in an email to the woman. " . . . Happy Hunting."
The woman, who was referred to only as Jane Doe in court documents, sued her ex-boyfriend in Harris County, Texas, district court in April 2022. The defendant, who was successfully served, did not respond to court summonses, hire an attorney or appear to represent himself even as the year-long court case moved toward trial, according to court documents.
His absence did not prevent a jury from ruling against him Wednesday. It recommended he pay a $1.2 billion penalty for damages against the woman - a higher sum than the woman's attorneys had requested, and one that they said is unlikely to be recouped.
However, it set an appropriately high bar for the severity of the abuse, said Bradford Gilde, an attorney for the woman.
"This trial was not about the money or the number, it was about the message," he said. "We applaud the strength of Jane Doe to file this lawsuit and to set an example by warning others that, if you engage in image-based sexual abuse, you will spend the rest of your life with an excess judgment over your head."
The defendant, who was not criminally charged, could not be reached for comment.
A Texas law enacted in 2015 forbids the disclosure of intimate visual material without the consent of the depicted person and with the intent to harm them, and it holds violators liable for damages. Few cases have gone to trial in Texas since then, said Jacob Schiffer, another attorney for the woman.
The couple, who started dating while living in Texas and relocated to Chicago in 2016, began a "long and drawn out break up" in early 2020 before separating in October 2021, according to the woman's lawsuit. The woman then moved back to Harris County to live with her mother.
The woman's ex-boyfriend retained access to log-ins for her email and social media accounts and her mother's home security system, which included cameras, the lawsuit states. Between October 2021 and March 2022, he allegedly accessed the woman's accounts, changing information on her Zoom account, sending a false email to a loan officer the woman was in contact with, and accessing her bank account to pay his rent.
The man also began to distribute intimate images of Doe, the lawsuit alleged. He allegedly sent friend requests and online messages through the fake social media accounts to the woman's friends, family and co-workers to humiliate her. Using the accounts, he tagged her workplace and her gym to direct them to the images, the lawsuit states.
The relentless harassment led the woman to contemplate suicide, and she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, her attorneys said.
"She's scared to show her face on Zoom, even with her co-workers," said Bradley Ertl, another attorney for the woman. "We had testimony from a co-worker that before all this took place, [our client] was bubbly, she was happy. She was always on the camera. Now she's not."
Gilde said the woman chose to pursue a lawsuit after making multiple attempts to report her ex-boyfriend's harassment to law enforcement without receiving assistance. Some social media platforms took down the images of her when she reported them, but she feared that many more had been copied and were out of her control, the attorneys added.
The man she sued never appeared in court or responded to her attorneys' attempts to contact him, Gilde and Ertl said. Earlier this month, the case went to trial. With no counsel opposing them and no defendant to cross-examine, the woman's attorneys made their case.
Gilde asked the jury to recommend a $100 million sum in damages, he said. The 12-person panel returned an even higher figure than Gilde had requested, exceeding $1 billion - a figure, he said, that showed the community's disdain for the harassment alleged.
The woman could pursue several avenues to collect the money her ex-boyfriend now owes her, but Gilde said that collecting the full sum was not the most important outcome. He hopes that the figure will "rock the internet" and discourage other such cases.
"The case in its entirety was, 'How do we get people's attention?'" Gilde said. " . . . 'How do we make this stuff stop?' It had to be communicated with a large number."