Three sex trafficking victims this month sued three major hotel chains in parallel lawsuits by advocates who say the companies exercised gross negligence about on-site prostitution at Houston branches despite corporate policies that promote social responsibility.
The lawsuits contend that Hilton Worldwide Holdings, Inc., Choice Hotels International, Inc., and Wyndham Hotels and Resorts, Inc. have not done enough to prevent sex trafficking at their franchises. The three women were identified by police as trafficking victims at Houston hotels owned by these chains, lawyers said. Two were teenagers at the time; one was an adult.
“Traffickers have long capitalized on the hotel industry’s refusal to adopt company-wide anti-trafficking policies, refusal to train staff on what to look for and how to respond, and failure to establish a safe and secure reporting mechanism, and they have exploited the seclusion and privacy of hotel rooms,” the lawsuits said.
Annie McAdams, a plaintiffs’ lawyer involved in the team effort, has built a reputation around tackling such cases, suing Facebook, Backpage, Salesforce and truck stops for their roles in promoting sex trafficking. The recent cases accuse the companies of negligence and violations of federal and state laws that prohibit trafficking.
“What’s notable about these cases is it’s the first effort targeted at the parent hotels,” McAdams said.
“The parent companies in state court have thrown up their hands and said we’re not responsible for anything that happens at these hotel locations,” said McAdams, whose firm is partnering with others on the cases. “But they make money on branding, licensing, advertising and franchise fees.”
“It’s not a secret they know that sex trafficking is a problem — they say so on their websites and they make representations to the public that they’re doing everything they can to prevent it,” she said. “They’re not doing enough.”
Irine Spivak, a spokesperson for Hilton Americas, said the company has a history of standing up to would-be traffickers.
“While we cannot comment specifically on matters pending litigation, Hilton is committed to complying with the law in every country and region where it operates, and always seeks to advance respect for human rights,” Spivak said. “We condemn all forms of slavery, forced labor, and human trafficking, and encourage our suppliers and business partners to share in this commitment.”
She continued,“We have a long-standing record of opposing human trafficking and sexual exploitation, demonstrated through our efforts to provide anti-human trafficking training to all Team Members across all brands and properties.”
Representatives for Choice and for Wyndham did not respond to requests for comment.
One victim, named in pleadings as Jane Doe #6, was a 15-year-old high school student in 2016 when she was drugged at a party. A pimp took the girl to a Comfort Inn in the 6600 block of the Southwest Freeway at Westpark and sold her to johns there for more than a week. The girl, who is now 17, has since completed a Harris County STAR court diversion program that helps with addiction.
“In her case, given the frequency of the visits, they should have known what was going on,” McAdams said.
Another Jane Doe seeking damages was trafficked at 2012 at a La Quinta Inn in the Galleria area. The third lawsuit was brought by a Jane Doe who was sold to johns at a Doubletree near Hobby Airport.
“These victims have been left with lifelong physical, emotional, and mental injuries,” the lawsuits say. “No longer will businesses profit off of the exploitation and mistreatment of others.”
They say the hotels and “other nefarious enablers” must be held responsible for their role in the harm.
The vast majority of reported incidents of trafficking take place in hotels. According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, 92 percent of calls received in 2014 involved reports of of incidents at hotels