It's been 20 years since Congress amended the Trafficking Victims Protection Act to allow victims to sue their traffickers in civil court, but it was only in 2015 that a sex-trafficking case was first lodged against a hotel under a provision of the law allowing victims to sue anyone who benefitted from a trafficking enterprise and knew — or could have known — that exploitation was happening. Since then, more than 110 civil sex-trafficking lawsuits against hotel franchisers have been brought in federal courts across the country, the New Yorker reports in a story about victims' experiences and the hotels' role in the prostitution business. Most major hotel franchisers have been named, although nearly half of these cases have been filed against Red Roof Inns and Wyndham Hotels (Days Inn, Super 8 and Howard Johnson); nearly a third are against Choice Hotels, which owns Quality Inn and Econo Lodge. These lawsuits have become so prevalent that some publicly traded companies are now acknowledging the threat of such litigation in their filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. None of the trafficking lawsuits against hotel franchisers have gone to trial yet. About half the cases are ongoing. At least a dozen have ended in a settlement. Judges have dismissed lawsuits in about a dozen other cases, finding that the plaintiffs had failed to show that the franchiser had in some way benefitted by being part of a venture that it knew or should have known was engaged in trafficking. Whether victims’ lawyers can, in fact, prove that a franchiser “should have known” about trafficking at a franchised hotel remains an open question.
The lawsuits typically contend that the companies, which collect a fee for every room rental, failed to insure that their businesses weren’t complicit in exploitation. Plaintiffs' attorneys argue that the hotel industry had failed to heed common warning signs, as identified by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, including guests who showed signs of malnourishment, poor hygiene, sleep deprivation, or untreated illness; people who stayed for extended periods of time with few personal possessions; and an excessive number of condoms found in a hotel room. “How do you get at the systemic?” said Luis C. deBaca, a former director of the State Department’s anti-trafficking office who, as a congressional staffer, led the drafting of the provisions allowing for these lawsuits. The federal law needed to reach beyond the “person holding the stick to the person who profits from the stick being held.” Steven Babin, an Ohio attorney who has filed a third of the human-trafficking lawsuits against hotel corporations in the U.S., said. “It's a top-down problem, right? Thinking about it as who is in the position to most affect what’s happening and who’s benefitting the most from it — all signs point to these corporations.” Annie McAdams, a Houston attorney who filed some of the earliest trafficking cases against hotel chains, said the future of the litigation turns on whether general knowledge of a problem is enough. “Nobody’s seen litigation like this,” she said. “At the end of the day, it’s new. You’re creating what the law will be.”