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Hotel chains ignored human trafficking, lawsuits allege

Lawyers representing human trafficking victims want a single federal judge to oversee multiple lawsuits alleging that major hotel chains have ignored human trafficking taking place on their premises.

Attorneys have asked a federal panel to consolidate at least 21 such lawsuits pending in 11 states into a single case in federal court in Columbus, arguing that the lawsuits contain the same basic allegations.

"Human traffickers have capitalized on the hospitality industry's refusal to adopt and implement industry-wide standards and anti-trafficking policies and procedures, including, but not limited to, training hotel staff on how to identify obvious and well-known signs of sex trafficking," according to a court filing earlier this month seeking to consolidate the cases.

In Columbus, a woman who was trafficked for months has sued three hotel chains, alleging they knew she was being forced to work as a prostitute in hotel rooms for days on end — forced to serve up to 10 johns a day — but hotel employees didn't do anything.

The lawsuit says hotel staff overlooked easily observed signs of trafficking, including trash cans full of condoms, payment for rooms in cash, and refusal of housekeeping services.

"Despite her desperate pleas and screams for help, after being beaten or choked at the Defendants' hotel properties, the hotel staff ignored her and did nothing to prevent the ongoing and obvious torture she endured while she was regularly trafficked for sex at Defendants' hotel properties," according to the March 9 lawsuit.

"Felt invisible"

In Virginia in 2012, a woman said she was trafficked out of hotels owned by Wyndham Hotels — such as a Super 8 in Hampton, Virginia — by a man she sought refuge with after facing homelessness. The woman was forced to perform sex acts on men at least seven times a day but sometimes twice that and her trafficker paid hotel staff to look the other way, a Dec. 2 lawsuit alleged.

The men, many of them repeat customers, entered through the front lobby, the lawsuit said.

"I felt invisible the whole entire time," the 32-year-old woman told The Associated Press. "That was the worst part, is knowing that people knew and nobody was willing to help."

The AP does not identify victims of sexual assault.

The abuse happened over 43 days until she escaped when her trafficker fell asleep, exhausted from beating her, according to the lawsuit. The Richmond woman is now married and working as a restaurant general manager.

1,500 victims

Companies named in the lawsuits, including Choice Hotels International, Inc., Inter-Continental Hotels Corps., and Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, declined to comment on the lawsuit but all said they take the issue of human trafficking seriously and do everything they can to prohibit it. That includes training hotel employees on ways to identify trafficking.

"We condemn human trafficking in any form," Wyndham Hotels said in a statement.

The American Hotel and Lodging Association says a national campaign is underway to train every hotel employee in the U.S. on ways to recognize and stop human trafficking.

About 1,500 victims of human trafficking have retained lawyers in the various lawsuits and as many as 7,000 are expected over time, said Paul Pennock, an attorney with the New York-based firm Weitz & Luxenberg, which is leading the efforts to consolidate the lawsuits.

Settlement size

A settlement could run into the billions of dollars, he said, because of the size of the problem and the evidence that hotels have long known of the trafficking.

"When you have something of that magnitude, the hotel industry, that dictates almost everything that happens in a hotel down to the writing pads next to your phone, need to take account of it and do something about it," Pennock said.

A decision to consolidate the lawsuits is expected within a few weeks. The complaints have been filed in Georgia, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, and Washington State.

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