Lawsuits Over Sex Trafficking in Hotels Nationwide To Proceed Without MDL Centralization

While a growing number of sex trafficking lawsuits have been filed in recent weeks against major hotel chains, a panel of federal judges has rejected a request to centralize the litigation before one judge for coordinated discovery and pretrial proceedings.

The Hilton, Wyndham, Days Inn, Super 8, Red Roof Inn, Quality Inn and other franchises have been named in complaints filed in various different U.S. District Courts nationwide, each involving similar claims brought by adult or minor women, who claim the hotel operators allowed their properties to become dens for sex trafficking operations that were obvious to staff members.

All of the hotel sex trafficking claims involve similar allegations that policies established by major chains prioritized the profits generated by high occupancy rates over simple steps that could have prevented women from being raped, abused and imprisoned at hotels and motels throughout the United States.

Given common questions of fact and law presented, lawyers representing a number of sex abuse survivors filed a motion with the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation (JPML) in December, seeking to have all hotel sex trafficking cases consolidated before one judge to reduce duplicative discovery into common issues, avoid conflicting rulings and to serve the convenience of parties, witnesses and the judicial system.

According to the motion, there were at least 23 cases pending in 12 different U.S. District Courts at the time it was filed. However, according to law firms involved in the litigation, there are already approximately 1,500 sex trafficking survivors who have retained lawyers to investigate and pursue potential claims against the hotel industry.

Following oral arguments presented late last month, the U.S. JPML issued an order denying transfer (PDF) of the complaints last week, determining that the cases are too different to benefit from a multidistrict litigation.

“(E)ach action involves different alleged sex trafficking ventures, different hotel brands, different owners and employees, different geographic locales, different witnesses, different indicia of sex trafficking, and different time periods,” the judges ruled. “Thus, unique issues concerning each plaintiff’s sex trafficking allegations predominate in these actions. Indeed, there is no common or predominant defendant across all actions, further indicating a lack of common questions of fact.”

The judges said they sympathized with the plight of the victims, but believe informal coordination is preferable to address any overlap in pretrial proceedings.

Many of the hotel chains opposed consolidation, arguing that there is no common link between the claims to justify centralizing the cases before one judge. However, the problem is likely to be compounded in the coming months and years, as additional cases are filed.

In complex mass tort litigation, where a large number of claims are filed throughout the federal court system by individuals who suffered similar injuries as a result of the same or similar wrongdoing, it is common for the federal court system to centralize the litigation for pretrial proceedings. However, if settlements are not reached during discovery or following a series of early “bellwether” trials, each claim may later be remanded back to the U.S. District Court where it was originally filed to go before a jury. However, given the JPML’s ruling, for the time being at least, the cases will proceed as individual lawsuits.

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