Denver-area hotels cannot be held liable for sex trafficking, federal judge rules

A federal judge has ruled that hotels in the Denver area cannot be held liable for sex trafficking on their premises.

U.S. District Court Chief Judge Philip A. Brimmer deemed the allegations insufficient to show that Choice Hotels International, the parent company for multiple lodging brands, knew that trafficking was occurring at two specific sites where Megan Lundstrom was forced into servitude.

“There are also no allegations that plaintiff made a member of the staff at either hotel aware that she was being forced to engage in commercial sex activity, as opposed to engaging in commercial sex by choice,” Brimmer wrote in a Nov. 30 order.

In a report released on Friday, the U.S. Department of Justice acknowledged as a priority the need to pursue “facilitators” of trafficking like hotel owners, calling them “important participants in the criminal network” which are “sometimes overlooked by investigators and prosecutors.”

Lundstrom was 23 years old when she was reportedly forced to endure assaults, psychological torment and murder threats from her trafficker. The man allegedly advertised Lundstrom on the now-defunct classified site backpage.com, and forced Lundstrom to service between 10 to 15 men per day for nearly two years.

In March of this year, Lundstrom filed a lawsuit against Choice Hotels, whose franchises included a Quality Inn in Centennial and Sleep Inn in Thornton where her trafficker took her to have sex with strangers weekly from 2010 to 2011.

“Defendant knew, or should have known, Ms. Lundstrom was being trafficked because she stayed at the hotel only during day light hours, always checked in early, by about 9:00 a.m., and always left the hotels by about 5:00 p.m.,” her lawyers wrote. “Additionally, there was consistent traffic of men in and out of her room, during daytime hours, she carried no luggage, she did not stay overnight, the room amenities were rarely used, and there were numerous condoms and single use sanitary towels left in the room.”

Lundstrom alleged that employees who recognized her even winked at her as she checked in and once “upgraded her to a room with a jetted tub.” Lunstrom’s lawsuit claimed Choice Hotels profited financially from her abuse, valuing room occupancy over her safety. She sought monetary damages and revised company policies for addressing sex trafficking.

Choice Hotels requested that Brimmer dismiss the lawsuit. It argued the company had not knowingly participated in any trafficking venture, that it was merely the franchise administrator and that Lunstrom had not even established that she was a trafficking victim. “The Court finds that plaintiff has plausibly alleged that she was trafficked,” countered Brimmer.

The judge concurred with Lundstrom that she had credibly claimed Choice Hotels knowingly benefited from the trafficking operation. He noted that renting hotel rooms for sex trafficking could constitute a benefit under the federal law.

Despite this determination, however, he ultimately found Lundstrom failed to show that the parent company knew or should have been aware of her specific experience on its franchisees’ property.

“Plaintiff alleges that defendant was on notice about the prevalence of sex trafficking generally at its hotels and in the hotel industry,” Brimmer wrote. “But this is not sufficient to show that defendant should have known about what happened to plaintiff.”

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