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Attorney Yale Freeman, along with attorney Sharon Hanlon, are representing two unnamed plaintiffs in a civil lawsuit alleging that 22 hotels were aware or should have been aware of sex trafficking activity occurring on their properties. Naples Daily News

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Editor's Note: This story was updated 2/7/2020 to include additional data from the Human Trafficking Institute about the number of civil sex trafficking lawsuits filed against hotels in 2019.

A lawsuit filed against 22 Naples-area hotels and motels is in line with a national effort to hold hotels accountable for ignoring sex trafficking activities, according to an expert from the Human Trafficking Institute in Virginia.   

Kyleigh Feehs, associate legal counsel for the institute, said her organization is still collecting data but has tracked more than 20 civil sex trafficking lawsuits filed in 2019 against hotel companies nationwide at the federal level. 

The lawsuits, filed in Ohio, New York and Massachusetts, name some of the same defendants as the lawsuit filed at the circuit court level in Collier County. 

The overlapping defendants named in the lawsuits are Hilton Hotels & Resorts, Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, Choice Hotels International, Best Western International, Inter-Continental Hotels Corporation and Marriott Hotels.   

The Human Trafficking Institute hasn't identified any civil federal lawsuits filed against hotel companies that allege sex trafficking in 2017 or 2018. 

The uptick in civil suits filed against hotel companies in 2019 is due to a focus on a provision from 2003 in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act and most likely not because of an increase in sex trafficking at hotels or motels, Feehs said.  

More: 22 Collier County hotels, motels accused of permitting sex trafficking, lawsuit claims

More: See the list of hotels and motels named in a Collier County sex trafficking lawsuit

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act, enacted in 2000, was refined in a way that allows trafficking victims to file civil lawsuits against their traffickers in federal court, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.  

The revision in 2003 includes language that civil action may be brought by the victims against the perpetrator or whoever knowingly benefited financially from the sex trafficking, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.   

This is the provision that has allowed sex trafficking victims to file federal civil suits against hotel companies, Feehs said.  

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A lawsuit filed in Ohio in March 2019 against several hotel companies, including Best Western International, Inc., may have been the first time the 2003 provision was used by a sex trafficking victim to file a federal civil lawsuit against a hotel company, according to a report from law firm Jones Day and research by the Naples Daily News. 

Each state has its own legislation to hold sex traffickers accountable, including some that allows for civil lawsuits to be filed against hotel companies by victims.  

A 2018 Florida bill that would have established in statute the right of sex trafficking survivors to sue businesses that knowingly facilitate their trafficking — including hotels and motels — died under pressure from the industry. 

Still, attorneys can use other creative legislation apart from trafficking statues that gives victims the right to sue hotel companies, Feehs said.  

“There has been a focus on the provision that allows for suits to be brought against entities that financially benefit from trafficking,” Feehs said. “That's why these lawsuits are being filed. It's to try and hold some of these hotels accountable.” 

Her organization only tracks federal cases as state data is harder to access, Feehs said.   

Yale Freeman, one of the lawyers behind the lawsuit filed against the 22 local hotels and motels, said his is the first of its kind in Collier County.   

The lawsuit filed by Freeman alleges the two dozen Naples-area hotels and motels did nothing to stop blatant sex trafficking activity in 2015 and early 2016.   

The telltale signs of the activity were women wandering the hotel hallways strung out on heroin while wearing provocative clothing, and men cycling in out of the women’s rooms that had “do not disturb” signs hung on the door for days, Freeman said.   

Efforts by attorneys to consolidate multiple federal human trafficking lawsuits filed against hotel companies nationwide are ongoing, The Associated Press reported in December. 

Attorneys have asked a federal panel to consolidate at least 21 such lawsuits pending in 11 states into a single case in federal court in Columbus, arguing that the lawsuits contain the same basic allegations.  

More: How can you spot human trafficking? Florida nonprofits, law enforcement, prosecutors explain

And: Florida's human trafficking bills stir hope and fear

The complaints have been filed in Georgia, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, Washington state and, most recently, Maine.   

About 1,500 victims of human trafficking have retained lawyers in the various lawsuits, and as many as 7,000 are expected over time, Paul Pennock, an attorney with the New York-based firm Weitz & Luxenberg told The Associated Press.   

Pennock’s law firm is leading the efforts to consolidate the lawsuits.   

Jennifer Dritt, executive director of the Florida Council Against Sexual Violence, said she expects to see more lawsuits accusing hotels and motels of ignoring sex trafficking.  

“Until institutions and businesses take seriously their responsibility and their ability to stop this sort of thing from happening on their properties, we’re not going to be able to get a handle on sexual abuse,” Dritt said. “They have a responsibility to our communities and to society to do that, and they have the capacity to do it.” 

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