A bill that would allow sex-trafficking survivors to sue hotels that turn a blind eye to their abuse is moving in the Florida Senate. Some lawmakers worry that Senate Bill 1044 would create a new area of the law – or grounds for fraud. Monday the testimony of four survivors moved the Senate Committee on Children, Families and Elder Affairs to a unanimous vote in favor of the measure.
The bill's Senate sponsor, Lauren Book, Democrat of Plantation, began by reading a letter from a young woman named Lynn, describing how she'd been sold into sexual slavery, drugged, tied down on hotel beds and raped for 41 days.
"The people working in the hotel had to know what was happening to me, seeing men and cars coming in and out," Lynn had written. "I was forced to have sex with one of the men working the front desk at one of the motels, who lived on-site. The pictures of me that were up on Backpage were taken in the hotel, where men could pay an hourly rate to my captors."
It turned out Lynn was in the Senate hearing room to support the bill. So were three other survivors.
"I didn't have any shoes, I had marks all over me, I was crying," said survivor Savannah Parvu, "and hotel staff came in and told me my 'friend,' who was really my trafficker, called and told me that I needed to walk home. I was walking barefoot, bloody, beaten and alone at 12 years old down the hallway of a hotel, and no one helped me, no one asked questions, no one asked me if I needed anything."
Connie Rose also testified. She says she was abused for more than 14 years. Her father began sexually abusing her when she was just two years old.
"My father was also my pimp," Rose said. "And from the age of 15 to 19 years old, my father rented me out by the hour, by the night and by the day in Tampa Bay in hotels."
Senators praised the survivors for coming forward. But they also had concerns about Book's bill, which would allow victims of sex trafficking to sue both their perpetrators and the establishments that showed "willful blindness" of the crimes taking place on their premises.
Committee Chairman Rene Garcia, a Hialeah Republican, worked with Book on the measure.
"What I'm trying to accomplish with my line of questioning is to make sure that we don't create a cottage industry out here of filing frivolous lawsuits," Garcia said.
"I think that if you're doing the right things, there is nothing to fear," Book replied.
Her bill contains language saying hotels and motels that train their workers to spot the signs of sex trafficking and develop a protocol for reporting it have an "affirmative defense" against liability.
"Just like we do at airports," Book said. "I would not be afraid, because I would want my facility to be one of the safest, and not to allow any of the things to occur in and on my watch."
And when Lynn finally spoke, it was to tell senators not to worry about frivolous lawsuits from victims.
"…'cause it's horrible," she said, crying. "I have sleepless nights…anxiety…PTSD…every day of my life, and I have to use coping skills and have had 5 years of therapy to deal with it…to live. And I have a two-year-old that I'm going to fight for, so it won't happen to her. And I have nieces. So I don't believe people would be making fake lawsuits."
The bill goes next to the Senate Rules Committee. Its House companion goes next to the House Judiciary Committee.