Twenty-one sex trafficking survivors who filed lawsuits against various hotels where they were victimized will not have their cases consolidated before a single court, the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation ruled last week.
Despite the fact that all of the cases share the same cause of action – namely, that the hotels failed to train their staff members on how to recognize and report suspected sex trafficking activity – the JPML ruled that the cases were too diverse to be consolidated.
The plaintiffs cited not only the hotels’ failure to identify trafficking and take action but also their alleged knowledge of what was going on and the benefits they derived from allowing those activities. In addition, plaintiffs pointed out their common claim for relief under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, which holds lodging facilities liable. The plaintiffs also pointed out that pursuing individual cases would be burdensome.
In response, defense counsel argued that the facts in the various cases were too varied to warrant consolidation. Specifically, defense counsel argued that the companies, lodging facility locations, time of the incidents in question, witnesses, and the indications all differed widely and did not justify centralizing all the cases before one federal court judge. Out of 45 named defendants, 38 opposed consolidation. Their opposition was supported by an amicus brief filed by one anti-trafficking organization. In addition, four of the plaintiffs themselves were against having the cases consolidated.
The plaintiffs were also in disagreement over the appropriate venue. Some wanted the cases heard in Minnesota, the Eastern District of New York, or the Southern District of Texas. Six of the 21 cases did originate in Ohio, naming defendants that include Best Western Hilton, Marriott, Red Roof Inn, and Wyndham Hotels.
Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 42, the court may allow several lawsuits to be consolidated in a single venue when the cause of action and questions of fact and the law are similar enough in order to conserve judicial resources. Unlike a class action, individual plaintiffs retain their own separate cases; however, pre-trial proceedings such as discovery and depositions are held before a single judge or panel of judges in the same court.
As the system struggles to deal with the underlying issues, the JPML recognizes the seriousness of what is at stake, and that the growing number of potential complaints and the widespread nature of sex trafficking represents a significant problem for the hospitality industry and beyond. It’s always possible that the JPML could reconsider its position in the future as more cases are filed and commonality of facts become more known.