Beware! Do sex traffickers lurk at your hotel?

Alert! Hotels have been officially enlisted in the fight to stop human sex trafficking. Disregarding this obligation can lead to abuse of victims, lawsuits and liability. Several lodging companies currently are on the hot seat, having been sued by a trafficking sufferer for failing to detect that their properties were sites where she was trafficked and needed help.

According to the allegations, plaintiff was forced into sexual encounters at defendants’ properties. Plaintiff eventually was able to escape and her trafficker has been prosecuted, found guilty and sentenced, presumably to a prison term.

Per the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, a hotel can be sued civilly by trafficking victims if two requirements are met: 1) It benefited financially, which is satisfied by renting a room to the trafficker, and 2) employees knew or—and this is key—should have known that trafficking was occurring at the property. Actual knowledge is not required; overlooking telling facts is sufficient.

Plaintiff claims the following behaviors should have alerted the inns to the illegal activity: requests by her trafficker for rooms near exits, numerous men regularly coming and going from the room, the presence of large quantities of lubricant and condoms, excessive requests for towels and linens, payment for the rooms with cash and requests to decline housekeeping. Plaintiff further asserts that the facilities should have recognized bruises on her body from assaults by her trafficker and her demeanor in never looking hotel staff in the eye.

The properties deny liability and asked an Ohio federal court to dismiss the case as unfounded, without the need for trial. The court, however, has refused, determining that plaintiff may have a valid claim. This ruling significantly bolsters her position. The case will either be settled with the defendants compensating plaintiff or it will proceed to trial.

The lessons are clear. Innkeepers must train staff to recognize indicators of trafficking and what to do if detected. Disregarding this responsibility perpetuates exploitation and can result in liability for victims’ injuries and trauma.

Karen Morris is a lawyer, municipal judge and Distinguished Professor at Monroe Community College in Rochester, N.Y., where she teaches hospitality law. Contact her at [email protected].