A survivor of sex trafficking in New Hampshire is suing four major hotel chains, including Best Western and Marriott International, alleging they profit from forced prostitution and fail to take measures to stop perpetrators who use their hotel rooms.
The civil lawsuit filed Monday in federal court alleges that a 26-year-old woman with developmental disabilities was repeatedly trafficked for commercial sex at hotels around the state, including the Holiday Inn and Best Western in Concord, the Best Western in Keene, a Super 8 owned by Wyndham in Tilton, and a Marriott-owned facility in Gilford.
The woman, who is only identified by the initials “K.B.,” is seeking damages, claiming the facilities “have chosen to ignore the open and obvious presence of sex trafficking on their properties, enjoying the profit” while willfully turning a blind eye to criminal misconduct.
The civil lawsuit is the latest in a series of cases nationwide that seek monetary awards from hotels. Under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, a federal law first passed in 2000, victims of sex trafficking can seek damages against third parties, including facilities where they were assaulted.
“These dirtbags would show up and they would pay the pimp, the trafficker, and she would be forced to have sex with six to eight men a night, often being brutalized,” said Paul Pennock, an attorney at Weitz & Luxenberg, which is representing K.B.
The firm, which has already filed at least two dozen similar cases nationwide, is seeking to have the suits joined into a single lawsuit in an Ohio federal court. Pennock believes that will give victims including K.B. the best opportunity to hold the hotel chains financially accountable for failing to take action.
“We are trying to bring the hotel industry to the point where they are not just putting rules and suggestions on paper, but that they are financing an arm of their own operations that will enforce this with true zero tolerance,” said Pennock.
Of the four hotel chains named in the New Hampshire suit, only Wyndham Hotel and Resorts responded to a request for comment, writing “We condemn human trafficking in any form. Through our partnerships with the International Tourism Partnership, ECPAT-USA, Polaris Project and other organizations that share the same values, we have worked to enhance our policies condemning human trafficking while also providing training to help our team members, as well as the hotels we manage, identify and report trafficking activities. We also make training opportunities available for our franchised hotels, which are independently owned and operated. As the matter is subject to pending litigation, we’re unable to comment further at this time.”
The lawsuit points out that the hotel industry has launched efforts to train some employees on the warning signs of sex trafficking, and that some chains have enacted policies supporting the elimination of trafficking.
But the suit alleges that the facilities haven’t gone far enough to protect victims, including K.B. who was first trafficked by a man claiming to be her boyfriend in 2016.
The suit alleges that she was subjected to “repeated instances of rape, physical abuse, verbal abuse and exploitation” at the hotels for a period of two years. According to court paperwork, K.B. frequently was seen by front desk workers crying, with prominent bruises and bite marks on her body.
According to statistics provided by the Human Trafficking Institute, this is believed to be the first civil case under the TVPA filed in New Hampshire.
In Massachusetts, a woman named Lisa Ricchio filed a civil lawsuit against the Shangri-La Motel in Seekonk, Massachusetts, alleging that the facility knowingly benefited from her forced prostitution.
After initially being dismissed, Justice David Souter, a former U.S. Supreme Court Justice, authored an opinion for the First Circuit Court of Appeals reversing the lower court’s ruling. The decision found that a hotel can be held liable by simply accepting payment for a room, without an additional bribe being paid, as long as other conditions are met.
“It is not that any hotel is liable just because the trafficking occurred on their premises. The question is whether the company that’s been sued knew or should have known [about] the trafficking,” says Cindy Vreeland, a partner at WilmerHale, which is handling Ricchio’s case pro bono.
After years of appeals, that case went to trial earlier this month. Vreeland believes the federal statute is a crucial tool for making victims whole again after suffering abuse.
“Sex trafficking is a huge problem in our country. And the goal of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act is to hold responsible companies and third parties that know or should know what’s happening.”