Human Trafficking Survivor Settles Lawsuit Against Motel Where She Was Held Captive | New Hampshire Public Radio

Human Trafficking Survivor Settles Lawsuit Against Motel Where She Was Held Captive

Feb 20, 2020
Originally published on February 20, 2020 8:05 pm

Editor's note: This report includes graphic and disturbing descriptions of assault.

In the summer of 2011, Lisa Ricchio received a call from a man she knew. He said he was in Massachusetts, in pain from a recent surgery, and needed help.

"I went down to meet him, and from there, that's where my nightmare kind of began," says Ricchio, who lived in Maine at the time.

Together, they checked into the Shangri-La Motel in Seekonk, Mass. Once they closed the door, he suddenly turned violent.

"I was held against my will for several days, and during that, he sexually assaulted me nonstop. He had burned me on my privates," Ricchio says. "He had cut me; he didn't allow me to eat or drink. It was truly a nightmare. Along with him telling me that I was going to be a prostitute to make him income."

At least twice while she was held captive, Ricchio claims motel employees saw her in distress but failed to intervene. Ricchio ultimately escaped, and her abuser was arrested and sentenced to prison.

Then, Ricchio did something novel.

Under a federal law called the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, or TVPA, she sued the motel, alleging that the owners financially benefited from the crime.

Legal experts and anti-trafficking groups say her 2015 case was the first filed against a hotel or motel for its role in a trafficking crime.

"It is not that any hotel is liable just because trafficking occurred on their premises," explains Cindy Vreeland, a partner at the firm WilmerHale, which handled Ricchio's case pro bono. "The question is whether the company that's been sued knew or should have known about the trafficking."

After a number of appeals and delays, the case finally settled in December 2019 with Ricchio receiving an undisclosed monetary award. Owners of the Shangri-La Motel didn't respond to a request for comment.

"I never thought it would be, like, an eight-year process," Ricchio says. "Anything in the court system seems to take forever."

That slow process isn't deterring other survivors of trafficking from bringing their own suits.

According to the Human Trafficking Institute, there were at least 25 new cases filed nationwide against hotels and motels last year under the TVPA.

Some of the named defendants include major chains such as Hilton, Marriott and Red Roof Inn.

"You can't just let anything happen on your property, turn a blind eye and say, 'Too bad, so sad, I didn't do it, so I'm not responsible,' " says Paul Pennock with the firm Weitz & Luxenberg.

Pennock has filed an estimated two dozen cases against hotels on behalf of victims in an effort to stop what he considers an epidemic of forced prostitution.

For its part, the hotel industry says it's actively working to stop forced prostitution in its rooms and takes the issue seriously.

"Every major U.S. hotel brand along with thousands of independent hotels have already begun training their employees," writes Chip Rogers, president and CEO of the American Hotel & Lodging Association, in a statement. "Hotels across the country are dedicated to helping victims and survivors, and training gives them the tools to recognize and report instances of trafficking."

Employees are trained to be on the lookout for warning signs, such as guests checking in without luggage, paying in cash, or heavy foot traffic in and out of the same room.

"It is not necessarily to avoid criminal charges or a lawsuit," says Robert Beiser with the Polaris Project. Along with operating a nationwide hotline, the nonprofit also works with the hospitality industry to lead training. "It is more because this is a crime of violence and harm, and certainly no one wants to go into work knowing that their business is associated with that kind of tragedy."

One challenge is getting this training and awareness into smaller and more isolated hotels.

For Lisa Ricchio, she says her lawsuit against the Shangri-La Motel was about more than money. It was also about accountability.

"Even if I can just change, change the outcome for even one person, just to prevent everything I went through, it's worth it to me," she says.

For years, Ricchio has felt the effects of PTSD and chronic pain from her assault. With the legal case now behind her, she's also now feeling a sense of relief.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A human trafficking survivor recently settled a first-of-its-kind lawsuit against the motel where she had been held captive. The woman says the staff turned a blind eye to her abuse. New Hampshire Public Radio's Todd Bookman reports the case has ushered in a wave of similar lawsuits nationwide. And a warning - this story contains descriptions of sexual violence.

TODD BOOKMAN, BYLINE: In the summer of 2011, Lisa Ricchio got a call from a guy she knew. She was living in Maine. He said he was in Massachusetts and needed to see her.

LISA RICCHIO: I went down to meet him, and from there, that's where my nightmare kind of began (laughter).

BOOKMAN: That's nervous laughter from Ricchio. Except for at court, she's never talked publicly about what happened to her. The man she met up with took her to the Shangri-La Motel in the town of Seekonk, Mass. Once they got inside the room, he turned violent.

RICCHIO: I was held against my will for several days. And during that, he, you know, sexually assaulted me nonstop. He had burned me on my privates. He had cut me. I mean, he didn't allow me to eat or drink. It was just - it was truly a nightmare, along with him telling me that I was going to be a prostitute to make him income.

BOOKMAN: At least twice while she was held captive, Ricchio says motel employees saw her, saw him being violent to her, but did nothing.

You believe they knew what was going on.

RICCHIO: Definitely. Yes.

BOOKMAN: The motel owners didn't respond to a request for comment. Ricchio ultimately escaped. Her trafficker was arrested and sentenced to prison. Then Ricchio did something novel. She sued the motel under a federal law called the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. It lets victims bring suits against third parties who financially benefit from human trafficking. Legal experts and advocates say this is the first suit against a hotel or motel. After lengthy appeals, it wrapped up in December. Ricchio received an undisclosed settlement.

RICCHIO: I never thought it would be, like, an eight-year process, but I guess anything in the court system just seems to take forever.

BOOKMAN: That slow process isn't deterring other survivors from bringing their own suits. Just last year, there were at least 25 new cases filed nationwide against hotels, according to the Human Trafficking Institute. Hilton, Marriott, Red Roof Inn - they're just some of the named defendants.

Attorney Paul Pennock brought some of these cases on behalf of victims. He says hotels can't ignore what he calls an epidemic of forced prostitution.

PAUL PENNOCK: You can't just let anything happen on your property and turn a blind eye and say, too bad, so sad. I didn't do it, so I'm not responsible.

BOOKMAN: For its part, the hotel industry says it's actively working to stop forced prostitution in its rooms.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Traffickers often use legitimate businesses to carry out their heinous crimes. America's hotels are tackling this issue every day.

BOOKMAN: That video is part of an awareness campaign from the American Hotel and Lodging Association. Major chains around the country are training employees to be on the lookout for warning signs, such as guests checking in without luggage, paying in cash or people acting suspiciously.

Robert Beiser is with the Polaris Project, one of the groups that helps lead these trainings.

ROBERT BEISER: So it's not necessarily to avoid, you know, criminal charges or a lawsuit. It's more because this is a crime of violence and harm. And certainly, no one wants to go into work knowing that their business is associated with that kind of tragedy.

BOOKMAN: One challenge is getting this training and awareness into smaller and more isolated hotels. For Lisa Ricchio, her lawsuit against the Shangri-La Motel wasn't just about money. She says it was about accountability.

RICCHIO: Even if I can just change the outcome for even one person just to prevent everything I went through, I mean, it's worth it to me.

BOOKMAN: For years, Ricchio has felt the effects of PTSD and chronic pain from her assault. With the legal case now behind her, she's also now feeling a sense of relief.

For NPR News, I'm Todd Bookman.

(SOUNDBITE OF O LAKE'S "MORNING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.