A federal civil suit seeks damages from 12 hotel chains for allegedly ignoring warning signs of human trafficking in violation of federal laws. A briefing paper written by a national law firm says any business could face millions of dollars in damages if they are found to have benefited from “human trafficking if they know or should have known about such exploitation.”
“Any range of businesses may similarly come in contact with sex trafficking victims or benefit from their exploitation, including casinos, restaurants, bars, nightclubs, concert and sport venues, banks, advertisers and transportation companies,” stated the paper.
The brief was written by members of the law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP, which has offices across the country. The paper is titled “Human Trafficking Raises Corporate Liability Concerns for the Hospitality Industry: Recent U.S. lawsuit against corporations, including major hotel chains, shines the spotlight on the need for anti-human trafficking compliance.”
Lawsuits filed on behalf of 13 women were consolidated in December in the U.S. District Court in Columbus, Ohio. One of the suits was filed on behalf of a woman identified as C.T.
“For years, sex trafficking ventures have brazenly operated in and out of hotels throughout the country. Criminals parade their misconduct openly on hotel properties throughout the United States while the hotels and hospitality industry continues to neglect such criminal misconduct to continue earning a profit at the expense of human life, human rights and human dignity,” the suit stated.
The hotels “know and have known for more than a decade that sex trafficking reportedly occurs under their flag throughout the country. 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.”
At the age of 19, the suit alleged, C.T. “was sold via commercial sex transactions at Defendants’ hotel properties through force, fraud and coercion … she endured brutal physical assaults, psychological torment, verbal abuse and false imprisonment at the Defendants’ hotels for years as the Defendants did nothing but profit.”
Businesses are liable for damages under the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) if they “knowingly benefit” from activities they “knew or should have known” were violations of federal laws, according to the lawsuit.
The law could be applied to companies that provide transportation for trafficking victims, said Annie Sovcik, director of Busing on the Lookout (BOTL), a program of the organization Truckers Against Trafficking.
“Similar legal theories could potentially form the basis of lawsuits against all sorts of different companies, including transportation providers,” she said. “I’m not familiar with any bus companies that have faced those lawsuits, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened or that it’s not possible.”
A suit filed in Texas, by a woman identified as “Jane Doe,” in 2018 sought more than $1 million in damages, according to the Pillsbury paper. That suit alleged that hotel employees should have reported the “constant flow of male customers, who were not hotel guests,” but “failed to take steps to alert the authorities or otherwise prevent sexual exploitation of minors at their properties.”
“While trafficking victims have generally invoked the TVPRA to seek damages from their traffickers, the statute also provides a cause of action to bring claims against third parties such as hotels, casinos and other businesses in the hospitality industry,” the Pillsbury brief stated. “A victim may bring an action against ‘whoever knowingly benefits … from participation in a venture that person knew or should have known has engaged in’ trafficking.”
Jane Doe’s suit also named as defendants the owners of truck stops where she said she was trafficked.
“To avoid liability and unintentionally contributing to human trafficking while mitigating (the law’s) potentially significant impact on corporate assets and operations, companies should consider incorporating anti-human trafficking compliance into their own compliance framework,” Pillsbury advised.
“Doing so is particularly critical for companies operating in the hospitality business or other high-risk industries that might benefit from human trafficking. In addition, companies should proactively conduct employee training on how to identify signs of human trafficking, perform an internal review of existing policies and procedures to identify areas that may be subject to exploitation by traffickers (and make needed corrections) and assess their prospective suppliers’ and contractors’ labor practices.
“Human trafficking is a horrific form of modern-day slavery, a multi-billion-dollar criminal industry where traffickers use force, fraud or coercion to control their victims. Proactively engaging in anti-human trafficking compliance is thus necessary from both corporate social responsibility and risk management perspectives.”