COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – Nearly 30 lawsuits accusing major U.S. hotel chains of turning a blind eye to sex trafficking under their establishments’ roofs can proceed in Columbus, a federal judge ruled last Tuesday.
In a blow to several brand-name hotels, Judge Algenon Marbley denied the chains’ requests – including those made by the New Albany-headquartered Red Roof Inns, Inc. – to transfer a majority of the cases’ jurisdiction to a courtroom outside of Ohio. Five of the 36 total cases were approved for a venue change out of state, Marbley ruled.
“Columbus is at the forefront of this issue,” said attorney Steven Babin, citing the city’s early adoption of a specialized docket, CATCH Court, for trafficking victims and survivors, and Ohio’s status as the No. 4 state for human trafficking.
Babin, who is representing the unnamed sex trafficking survivors listed in the suits, welcomed Marbley’s decision. Centralizing the cases under one court – and before a judge “well-versed” in legal challenges under federal human trafficking laws – is more efficient, both for the attorneys and parties involved.
The cases, the first of which was filed in 2019, mark the first time major U.S. hotel chains are accused of violating the Trafficking Victim Protection Reauthorization Act, which prohibits companies from profiting off or benefiting from something they knew or should have known was trafficking, Babin said.
In a 2018 study, the anti-trafficking nonprofit Polaris Project found that about 75% of sex trafficking survivors who responded to its survey reported coming into contact with hotels during their exploitation. Of those survivors, 94% said they never received any help, concern or identification from hotel staff.
“If we can curb trafficking in the hotel industry, we can make a big move in eradicating it across the country,” Babin said.
Hotel chains named as defendants in the suits include Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, Choice Hotels, Red Roof Inn, Six Continents Hotel, Holiday Hospitality Franchising and G6 Hospitality.
Since he took on the cases, Babin said he’s heard “horrendous stories” from victims and survivors about the abuse they endured while confined to their trafficker’s room, and allegations that much of it was swept under the rug by hotel staff.
Babin said his clients include a victim who claims she was handcuffed to a hotel toilet while bathroom cleaning staff stood idly by; a teenage girl who said about 20 or 30 “johns” or “pimps” entered her room on a daily basis; and an underage victim who was provided alcohol at the hotel bar.
“There’s no policies, there’s no procedures, there’s no analysis of whether they’ve curbed the trafficking rates in the hotel,” Babin said. “It’s just a stick-your head-in-the-sand and hope the problem goes away.”
A spokesperson for Red Roof Inns, Inc. denied the lawsuits’ allegations that the New Albany-based chain failed to adopt procedures regarding trafficking at its hotels, saying in a statement that the company condemns human trafficking in all its forms.
The company is engaged in various alliances within the hospital industry to combat trafficking, including its involvement with the American Hotel and Lodging Association’s “No Room for Trafficking” campaign, which equips hotel industry employers and employees to recognize signs of trafficking.
“We will fight these allegations vigorously,” the company said.
NBC4’s inquiries to other hotel chains named in the suit were not returned.