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Philadelphia Marriott Downtown. Photo: EQRoy/Shutterstock.com

Marriott Hotels, which was sued last year for allegedly turning a blind eye to sex trafficking at three of its Philadelphia hotels, can bring third-party defendants into the litigation, a federal judge has ruled, addressing open questions about how liability can be apportioned in the burgeoning area of sex trafficking litigation.

U.S. District Judge Mark Kearney of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania granted Marriott International’s motion to file a third-party complaint against the franchisees who ran the hotels where the trafficking took place and those who directly trafficked the plaintiff.

Kearney’s ruling, which interpreted Section 1595 of the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, should provide guidance on how much control plaintiffs have when it comes to limiting the number of potential defendants in the  litigation.

“We remain conscious of the remedial nature of the act and its civil remedy through which Congress provides a plaintiff with options in choosing the defendant he or she wishes to name to pursue her claim for ‘damages,’” Kearney said. “But our focus today is solely on whether Marriott presents a Rule 14(a)(1) basis establishing the traffickers ‘may be’ liable to it for a judgment in this action.”

The ruling, however, left open the question of whether, before trial, Marriott’s claims against alleged third-party traffickers should be severed from the plaintiff’s cause of action against the hotel chain.

The lawsuit stems from allegations that from 2009 through 2011, the plaintiff, referred to only as A.B. in court papers, was trafficked at three hotels near the Philadelphia airport that were franchised by Marriott.

When A.B. filed her civil suit with trafficking claims, she chose to sue only Marriott International, raising a host of allegations to support her claims that the company ignored clear red flags that there was trafficking occurring on its premises.

Although the hotel chain argued that its conduct was too far removed to establish liability under the act, in April, Kearney denied those efforts, finding there was enough evidence to support claims that the hotel chain benefited from activities it “knew or should have known” involved sex trafficking.

Marriott subsequently sought to expand A.B.’s suit by filing a third-party complaint against the franchisees and A.B.’s direct traffickers, but A.B. challenged some of those efforts.

According to Kearney, A.B. did not oppose bringing the franchisees into the litigation, but, citing fears about losing anonymity and suffering personal harm, A.B. sought to block the hotel chain from suing those who trafficked her directly. Specifically, A.B. argued that her trafficker’s potential liability did not arise out of Marriott’s potential liability to A.B., and therefore the company should not be able to bring those third-party claims.

Countering those arguments, Marriott contended that, since A.B. needed to prove that sex trafficking occurred in one of its hotels in order to establish liability against the hotel chain, it would necessarily be able to apportion some, if not all, of its liability to the traffickers.

Kearney said the act did not directly address the issue, and neither the parties, nor the court had been able to find case law addressing how Congress dealt with apportionment under the act. However, he ultimately said the act appeared to allow defendants to bring traffickers into the litigation, since Marriott, the franchisees and the sex traffickers each share alleged involvement or neglect in harming A.B.

“The act does not offer much guidance, but we see each responsible party under the act is liable for ‘damages,’” Kearney said. “At this point in the proceeding, we decline to hold the sex traffickers may not be liable to Marriott under theories of indemnity or contribution if Marriott is found liable to A.B.”

Neither plaintiffs counsel Jerry Kristal, managing attorney in the Cherry Hill, New Jersey, office of Weitz & Luxenberg, nor Baltimore-based DLA Piper attorney Michael O’Day, who is representing Marriott, returned a call seeking comment.

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