Weinstein accuser seeks to set legal precedent with sex trafficking law

(Reuters) - The lawyer representing Harvey Weinstein’s latest accuser is attempting to set legal precedent by contending Weinstein’s actions overseas make him liable for civil damages under a criminal law against sex trafficking, five legal experts said.

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British actress Kadian Noble, 31, sued the Hollywood mogul in U.S. District Court on Monday, accusing him of luring her to his hotel room in Cannes, France, on the promise of a movie role but instead he forced himself upon her sexually.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in New York, does not accuse Weinstein of labor trafficking or other exploitations commonly associated with the commercial sex industry. But the criminal law on which the civil claim in based bans the use of force, threat or coercion for a sex act in exchange for value.

The alleged “value” in this case was the potential for a role in one of Weinstein’s films, according to the complaint. Attorneys interviewed by Reuters called the lawsuit’s application “innovative” and said they would be watching closely, but expressed mixed views about whether the approach would work in federal court.

Noble’s lawsuit claimed Weinstein promised her a role in a Weinstein Company project and that he invited her to his hotel room in February 2014 in France on the premise of viewing her show reel, or video highlights of her acting.

Responding to the lawsuit, Holly Baird, a spokeswoman for Weinstein, on Monday denied the allegation of non-consensual sex. Baird could not be reached on Tuesday for comment on the claim that Weinstein violated sex trafficking laws.

Weinstein and his representatives have also denied the allegations of more than 50 women who have accused him of sexually harassing or assaulting them over the past three decades. Reuters has been unable to confirm the allegations. Noble’s case adds another accuser to the list while also seeking to test the reach of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, a U.S. law that has been reauthorized or amended several times, expanding its extraterritorial reach.

Kathleen Kim, a professor at the Loyola Law School in Las Angeles, called the lawsuit a “a sound claim” that was well-crafted.

“The way that this complaint has been framed makes a sound allegation that the force, fraud or coercion for sex took place in exchange for value, which was the film role,” Kim said.

Paul Callan, a former prosecutor with the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office and attorney at the Edelman & Edelman firm in New York, was more skeptical, doubting federal courts would accept Herman’s theory of the law and calling it “an example of very creative lawyering.”

“It was a statute intended to punish those who participate in human sex trafficking,” Callan said. “What the lawyers here have done is they have cherry-picked phrases from that statute in an effort to prove that Harvey Weinstein’s actions in allegedly sexually abusing the actress fits into that statute.”

The plaintiff’s lawyer, Jeffrey Herman, said he knew of only one other case that attempted to use the law in a similar way but it failed to prove the underlying allegations, meaning the expanded interpretation of the law went untested.

“Given there is no appellate decision, this would be precedent-making,” Herman said. “I don’t think it’s a stretch at all.”

Reporting by Daniel Trotta; Additional reporting by Ben Klayman; Editing by Toni Reinhold