A Michigan woman, who says she was a victim of sex trafficking and abuse for years at metro Detroit hotels, is going after two of the world’s largest hotel companies — Marriott and InterContinental — for failing to stop it.
Instead, the lawsuit alleges, the companies turned a blind eye to turn a profit. The case filed in the U.S. District Court in Detroit last month adds to a growing number of lawsuits against hotel operators and chains, asking the hospitality industry to help police end human trafficking, reports the Detroit Free Press, which is a part of the USA TODAY Network.
“It’s part of an effort around the country to hold the hotel industry accountable for what they do — or what they should have known and didn’t do — to prevent sex trafficking in their hotels,” Tiffany Ellis, the attorney who filed the Detroit case, said Wednesday. “Obviously, the story we tell in the complaint is compelling and tragic and awful, but we believe it’s part of a larger picture of what’s happening in Michigan and around the country and world.”
On Thursday, Ellis added, a hearing before a judicial panel on multidistrict litigation is expected to be held in Tampa to decide whether her case and 35 others that have been filed separately in 21 different jurisdictions against 15 hotel brands should be centralized in the same court.
In addition to Michigan, similar lawsuits have been filed in Georgia, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia and Washington state.
In Michigan, 172 human trafficking cases were reported in 2019, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. Nationally, there were 4,585 cases. More than 1,000 cases were against children.
The Detroit lawsuit alleges the hotel chains “knew and should have known for more than a decade that sex trafficking repeatedly occurs under their flag throughout the country,” but instead of thwarting it, ignored “open and obvious” signs, “enjoying the profit from rooms rented for this explicit and apparent purpose.”
In the 43-page Detroit case, the victim — who is identified by her initials H.G. for her protection — says she was just 17 in 2003 when she was sold for sex and trafficked throughout eastern Michigan and subjected to multiple instances of rape and physical, verbal and psychological abuse.
H.G. was chained up and sexually exploited in rooms for days at the Fairfield Inn at 3285 Boardwalk in Ann Arbor, and Holiday Inn Express and Suites at 1020 Washington Blvd. in downtown Detroit, the lawsuit said.
The Fairfield Inn — a franchise of the Bethesda, Maryland-based Marriott and managed by Portfolio Hotels — said it condemns “all forms of human trafficking,” takes it seriously and is “committed to the training and engagement of our hotel teams.”
Portfolio added that it “took over management” of the hotel in late 2013, and all employees “have successfully completed the required Marriott training on preventing human trafficking.”
The Holiday Inn, which is a franchise of Atlanta-based IHG, declined comment.
The lawsuit alleged the abuse was so open and obvious it would have been difficult to ignore: H.G. looked “malnourished and withdrawn”; she was dressed “in skimpy clothes” that were “always ripped”; and the rooms were filled with blood, used condoms and other “sex paraphernalia.”
At the Holiday Inn, the lawsuit said, the victim once asked for help from the front desk. Blood was running down her leg and she was “visibly in danger” and in need of medical attention, but she received no help as her trafficker “pushed her back upstairs.”
In a different situation, she screamed as she was “penetrated vaginally with a broken bottle.”
“The staff,” the lawsuit said, “was, or should have been, aware.”
Moreover, the lawsuit concludes that the hotels should have known that there were drug dealing, prostitution and safety concerns because they had video surveillance and verbal and written complaints; but didn’t do anything about them.
In addition to the obvious signs, the lawsuit takes aim at the hotel chains for not providing training and policies to address sex trafficking and makes the case that the hotel chain received a percentage of the rate charged on the rooms where the victim was trafficked.
According to the lawsuit, H.G. got away from her abusers in 2008, but they continued to stalk and threaten her for three more years until she finally moved to the West Coast in 2011. She now lives in Solano County, California, where, her attorney said, she is safe.
The lawsuit also makes the argument that hotels and motels have the highest obligation to protect guests from dangers, including sexual exploitation, and this is even a tenet of the hospitality industry.
In addition to unspecified compensatory damages, medical expenses, and attorney fees, the lawsuit seeks that the hotel chains be required to make changes, including audits, new policies, rules and requirements for employees, agents and franchisees.
“It’s hard to put a number on it,” Ellis said of the damages. “Unfortunately, when we seek justice against wrongdoers, sometimes money is the only thing we can put in its place because we can’t make up what happened to them.”
But, she added, her client wants to make sure the hotel industry takes precautions and steps to train employees on how to spot signs of sex trafficking and to protect other people so that “this doesn’t happen again to anyone else.”
Contact Frank Witsil: 313-222-5022 or [email protected]
Did you read about this? Women sue Frontier Airlines over alleged sex assaults by passengers