Major Hotel Chains Across Numerous States Sued for Failure to Prevent Sex Trafficking
Monday’s Federal Lawsuit on Behalf of 13 Women Plaintiffs:
A lawsuit representing unprecedented legal action was filed on Monday alleging that multiple major hotel franchises profited from widespread and systemic sex trafficking occurring in Georgia, Ohio, Massachusetts, New York, and Texas. The lawsuit is on behalf of 13 women, all of whom claim to have been sold for sex in hotel rooms owned by companies including: Best Western Hotels & Resorts, Hilton Worldwide Holdings Inc., Intercontinental Hotels & Resorts, Red Roof Inn, and Wyndham Hotels and Resorts Inc.
Twelve different hotel chains were named in the lawsuit filed in U.S. Federal Court in Columbus, Ohio. The suit accuses the companies of “knowing and ignoring warning signs that women and children were sold as sex slaves on their premises.” Court documents indicate that the lawsuit filed on Monday is a consolidation of 13 existing cases that will be tried together.
New York law firm, Weitz & Luxenberg, is representing the 13 women. The lawsuit indicated that many of the women were minors when the alleged trafficking occurred. Currently, unspecified damages are being sought in the case.
The filing is considered monumental in many regards, perhaps most notably as it marks the first time that the hotel industry has faced litigation as a group. According to the Global Slavery Index, a report published by the human rights group Walk Free Foundation, it is believed that 400,000 individuals are currently held against their will in slavery throughout the U.S. The report includes instances of sexual servitude, forced and state-imposed labor, and forced marriage as examples of slavery in those figures.
The suit states that the hotels “derived profit” and “benefited financially” by “providing a marketplace for sex trafficking,” referring to the case as indicative of “industry-wide failures.” Additionally, the lawsuit filing stated, “Such corporate malfeasance has led to a burgeoning of sex trafficking” taking place in myriad hotels. The result, according to the court filings, “has reached the level of a nationwide epidemic.”
In an effort to address sex trafficking, many hotels in recent years have announced implementing initiatives which primarily entail staff training programs designed to help employees identify potential victims, as well as attempts at increasing the public’s awareness of the rampant nature of sex trafficking crimes predominantly affecting hotel guests. However, court documents filed by representatives for the plaintiffs referred to such efforts as “far too late” and noted, “Profit motives, not adherence to the law, continues to drive their [hotel companies] decision making.”
A report by Reuters indicated that the hotel industry “has long been accused of serving as a breeding ground for sexual exploitation of women and children.” Reuters reported receiving one comment from a Hilton spokesman who said via statement that the company “condemns all forms of human trafficking, including for sexual exploitation.” Reuters’ additional requests for comment to representatives of the other hotel groups named in the lawsuit, however, did not reportedly receive a response.
Luis CdeBaca, the former U.S. anti-trafficking ambassador-at-large, told Reuters “This is not one bad apple that needs to be dealt with,” adding, “The entire barrel has a problem…For years the hospitality industry has known that sex trafficking and especially child sex trafficking has occurred on their properties and yet it continues to happen.”
Additionally, Reuters referenced a specific example of one of the women in the complaint. According to the Reuters’ article, the woman stated she “was held captive at age 26 at various locations of Wyndham Hotels for six weeks in 2012” and, “During her captivity…her nose was broken twice, her lip was permanently scarred, and her face grew infected from repeated beatings.”
The woman told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, “I just wish that people realize how much it [sex trafficking] really is here in the U.S.,” adding, “It doesn’t matter if it’s a shady hotel or a nice hotel, it’s [sex trafficking] going on in all of them.”
Additional Suits Filed on Monday in Two Separate States:
Two additional lawsuits alleging sex trafficking at major hotels were also filed on Monday in Oregon and New Hampshire. The former, filed in U.S. District Court in Portland, is on behalf of a 22-year-old woman who alleges she was sold for sex at hotels in Oregon and Washington. Her lawsuit names six major hotel chains, stating each “failed to thwart the crime and were complicit in her abuse.”
The hotels listed as defendants in the lawsuit include: Hilton Worldwide Holdings Inc., Wyndham Hotels & Resorts Inc., Marriott International Inc., Choice Hotels Corp., Extended Stay America Inc., and Red Lion Hotels Corp.
The lawsuit specifically states, “Rather than taking timely and effective measures to thwart this epidemic, Defendant Hotels have instead chosen to ignore the open and obvious presence of sex trafficking on their properties.” Additionally, the suit contends, “Traffickers are well aware of the seclusion and anonymity attendant with booking rooms with hotel chains – they know it is unlikely that they will be disturbed.”
Moreover, language in the 74-page lawsuit filing alleges the hotels failed to intervene despite “obvious signs of human trafficking (no eye contact and duration of stay), and indicators of commercial sex activity (bottles of lubricants, boxes of condoms, used condoms in the trash, excessive requests for towels and linens, room rentals by her pimp with cash or credit while the plaintiff actually entered the room).”
The suit refers to the bane of sex trafficking as an “industry wide” problem, and notes, “In the United States, as much as 63% of all trafficking incidents happen in hotels, ranging from luxury to economy.”
Kimberly Lambert Adams of the Levin Papantonio firm is one of the attorneys representing the plaintiff. Court filings indicate the suit seeks unspecified compensatory, noneconomic, and punitive damages.
The latter case, filed in New Hampshire federal court, is against five hotel brands including: the Inter-Continental Hotels Corp., the Wyndham Hotel and Resorts, Marriott International, and Best Western, which owns two of the franchises named in the lawsuit.
The plaintiff, an unnamed woman with reported developmental disabilities, alleges that the sex trafficking began in 2016 when she was 26 years old. The lawsuit states that such instances of sex trafficking “brazenly operated out of [the] hotels,” and alleges the hotel chains chose to ignore obvious signs of sex trafficking in favor of “enjoying the profit from rooms rented for this explicit and apparent purpose instead.”
Additionally, according to the suit, the plaintiff was “drawn into commercial sex by her boyfriend who knew that she was a ‘vulnerable adult’ who had been sexually abused as a child.” The suit went on to state, “Preying on her need for affection of any sort, [the plaintiff’s] trafficker made sure that she actually believed that they were in a romantic relationship as he pushed her into commercial sex.”
Via court documents, the boyfriend is said to have “bought, sold and required her to sexually service paying strangers as she endured brutal physical assaults, psychological torment, verbal abuse, and false imprisonment.” The suit also alleges the victim’s services were advertised on the notorious website, Backpage.com.
Moreover, the suit contends the plaintiff had “bruises all over her [body],” and “was forced to have sex six to 10 times a day.” On one occasion, the suit alleges her sex trafficker “smashed [the plaintiff’s] head into the door of a room, spilling blood on it.”
The aforementioned New York firm, Weitz & Luxenberg, is also handling the New Hampshire suit. Paul Pennock is one of the Weitz & Luxenberg attorneys representing the New Hampshire plaintiff. It appears that Weitz & Luxenberg, which has already filed at least two-dozen similar cases nationwide, will move to have the New Hampshire suit consolidated in Ohio federal court with the 13 additional cases spanning multiple states that was filed on Monday. According to New Hampshire Public Radio, “Pennock believes that will give victims [including the New Hampshire plaintiff] the best opportunity to hold the hotel chains financially accountable for failing to take action.”
The Role of The Trafficking Victims Protection Act and the Potential for Additional Lawsuits:
All of the above mentioned suits are possible due to the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA). The TVPA is a federal law that was first passed in 2000, and allows victims of sex trafficking to seek damages against third parties, including facilities where they were assaulted. According to the Human Trafficking Institute, the New Hampshire lawsuit represents the first civil case in the state’s history to be filed under the TVPA.
The rash of recent filings by Weitz & Luxenberg and other firms may only represent a fraction of the potential for pending sex trafficking lawsuits against major hotel companies and franchises in the near future.
PINews.com will continue to monitor the story and will provide updates as they become available.