Two women recently filed lawsuits against several owners and operators of hotels in Philadelphia, alleging that the hotels had failed to protect them against being victims of sex trafficking. Human trafficking is a widespread problem that is the focus of increasing national attention. These novel lawsuits may well represent the beginning of a concerted effort to hold hotel owners and operators financially responsible for this dreadful phenomenon. This update explains the specific allegations and theories of liability asserted in the plaintiffs’ lawsuits. It is this information that owners and operators of hotels across the country should review carefully and use to reduce their own risks of being sued.
The Plaintiffs’ Allegations
The plaintiffs, identified only as "B.H." and "C.A.," allege that from 2012 through 2013, they were exploited as minors by commercial sex traffickers at a Days Inn, a North America Motor Inn, and the Roosevelt Inn in Philadelphia. The plaintiffs claim that the defendants were "uniquely positioned to observe the manifestations, indications and evincement of human sex trafficking" at their hotels, failed to take any steps to prevent human sex trafficking, failed to report to authorities that human sex trafficking was taking place, and rented rooms to sex traffickers, financially benefitting from the commercial sex acts occurring on the premises of their hotels. They also allege that the defendants had actual knowledge, constructive knowledge, and general awareness of the signs of human trafficking.
The plaintiffs claim that the defendants provided rooms and services at their hotels to their traffickers, and that they engaged in numerous commercial sex act "dates" per day at the hotels, while their traffickers would remain on the premises. They claim that staff at the hotels had conversations with the plaintiffs, that the plaintiffs exhibited fear and anxiety and were visibly treated in an aggressive manner by traffickers while in the public areas of the hotels, that the traffickers paid cash for the hotel rooms and refused housekeeping services, and that men walked the hallways and frequently entered and left the rooms. The plaintiffs also allege that they had extended stays at the hotels with few or no personal possessions, were left in the room for a long period of time, and dressed in a sexually explicit manner. Eventually, they were rescued from their traffickers by law enforcement.
The Plaintiffs’ Theories of Liability
The plaintiffs bring claims for negligence, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and negligent hiring, training, and/or supervision against the defendants. They allege that the defendants owed duties to the plaintiffs, as hotel guests, to exercise reasonable care to protect the plaintiffs against criminal conduct, should have reasonably anticipated criminal conduct by third parties on the hotels’ premises, knew or had constructive knowledge that they were renting rooms to individuals trafficking the plaintiffs, knew or had constructive knowledge that the plaintiffs were being sexually exploited, and failed to protect the plaintiffs from criminal conduct and to report to authorities.
The plaintiffs also list the ways that they claim the defendants failed to protect them from harm, including that the defendants failed to:
execute and implement security plans
publish protocols for employees to follow in circumstances involving commercial sexual activity or trafficking
establish or enforce policies and procedures concerning the protection of individuals on hotel premises
establish or enforce policies and procedures concerning removal of individuals posing security threats
adequately control access to the premises
train employees on recognizing, preventing, and responding to prostitution and sex trafficking
assign experienced security personal to provide competent guard services
establish and enforce policies and procedures concerning proper monitoring, surveillance, and patrolling of the premises
maintain surveillance equipment in proper working order and respond to suspicious activity detected on video surveillance
What Owners and Operators of Hotels Can Do To Reduce Their Risks and Defend Against Similar Lawsuits
These types of allegations are highly newsworthy, and potentially devastating to the reputation of a hotel. Hotel owners and operators would be wise to carefully consider the behaviors complained of in the lawsuits and promptly address similar deficiencies in their own policies and practices, including with respect to the hiring and training of their hotel staffs and the development, and enforcement, of policies relating to the protection of guests and responding to evidence of human sex trafficking. Hotel owners and operators should document their policies and procedures, should record the attendance of their staff at mandatory training sessions, and should consider consulting with experts who have experience in assessing and responding to signs of human sex trafficking.
These lawsuits present an array of complex legal issues, and may be the first of many. They also present a clear roadmap for how victims of sex trafficking may seek to hold hotel owners and operators responsible. Hotel owners and operators should contact the authors of this alert with any questions. We will remain apprised of potentially relevant future cases and are tracking these specific matters closely.