AT JUST 14 years old, a young woman in Houston, Texas, found herself enslaved and sexually exploited in the city’s hotels and truck stops. Now 18, the woman is holding those establishments responsible, at least partially, for the crimes committed against her in a lawsuit filed in Houston District Court in January.
Most of the suit filed by “Jane Doe” is focused on online advertising service Backpage.com, on which the plaintiff’s exploiter advertised her “services” when she was a 15-year-old in 2014 and 2015. However, it also alleges the abuse took place at Houston-area hotels and truck stops, saying human trafficking is “a rampant and known problem in the hotel industry.”
While Jane Doe’s lawsuit does not specify particular incidents at each hotel, it names as defendants Choice Hotels International, Quality Inn, Palace Inn, Hyatt Hotels and Balaji Hotels. “The hotel defendants refused to take any steps to alert authorities, properly intervene in the situation, or take reasonable security steps to improve awareness of sex trafficking and/or prevent the sexual exploitation of minors at their properties,” the lawsuit states.
Jane Doe is seeking more than $1 million in damages. Palace Inn vice president of franchising Raj Das said he does not think the statute cited in the lawsuit to justify his company’s inclusion extends to them, but his company, which is based in Houston, takes human trafficking very seriously.
“Although some of the properties and addresses listed in the petition are no longer licensees or franchisees in our system, many Palace Inn owners have attended anti- human trafficking training hosted by state and local hotel associations and the Houston Police Department,” Das said. That training includes live sessions as well as web-based courses that can be remotely accessed by all employees.
However, Das said the training is not mandated.
“One of the limitations of operating under a trademark licensing agreement was that our ability to mandate training was limited,” Das said. “This is one of the motivating factors for our brand to transition to a franchise model, which will allow us to focus and require franchisees to attend training on human trafficking and other important aspects of the hospitality industry.”
Choice Hotels cannot comment on specifics of pending litigation, a company spokesman said, but he released a statement saying the company also trains its employees on recognizing and responding to suspicious situations via its Choice University online training tool. “As a signatory of ECPAT’s Tourism Child-Protection Code of Conduct, we are committed to raising awareness of and combatting this issue with our franchised properties,” the statement said. “All Choice properties are independently owned and operated, and required to conduct business within the boundaries of all federal, state and local laws.”
Houston has been named as a hub of human trafficking by some international organizations, said Hasu Patel, president of Houston’s Small Independent Motel Owners Association or SIMA, which is working to change that reputation. “Many of the SIMA members have been participating in anti-human trafficking training provided by organizations, including the police department’s vice squad, local management districts as well as hotel associations like the Asian American Hotel Owners Association and the Texas Hotel and Lodging Association,” Patel said.
That training is not perfect, he said. It often takes a “broad brush” approach focused on labor trafficking and general statistics rather than data relevant to specific hotel operators. “It also lacks distinction between trafficking of males versus female victims of sex trafficking versus labor trafficking and thus leaves hoteliers with a lot of unanswered questions.”
While SIMA is looking for better training for its members, Patel said the lawsuit “implicates hoteliers in something they have little or no control over.”
“Hoteliers have to balance the privacy rights of a guest with any other concerns,” he said. “We anticipate that the lawsuit will not prevail since hoteliers simply have no reasonable reason to refuse a room to a guest who otherwise appears to be no danger to other guests and the hotel property without being seen to discriminate against that guest. Furthermore, once a guest enters a room, the hotelier has no control over the activity of that guest.”