When Must Insurers Defend Motelsin Trafficking Cases?

Hotels and motels are routinely used for sex trafficking. Two recent lawsuits highlight the complexity of determining who bears legal costs associated with trafficking.

Human trafficking is a crime with enormous individual and societal impacts, and it relies on legitimate businesses to sustain it. Motels, for example – and, arguably, insurers.

“Hotels and motels are routinely used for sex trafficking,” reports the Polaris Project, a nonprofit that aims to “eradicate modern slavery.” Two recent lawsuits involving insurers of motels used by traffickers highlight the complexity of determining who bears legal costs associated with such activities.

Duty to defend

Both cases revolve around “duty to defend” — an insurer’s obligation to provide a legal defense for claims made under a liability policy. Before proceeding, let me say: I’m not a lawyer.  Everything that follows is based on published reporting, and no one should act on anything I write without first consulting an attorney.

In the first case, a woman sued motel operators for letting her be trafficked at their motels when she was a minor. The Insurance and Reinsurance Disputes Blog says, “The allegations of physical harm, threats, being held at gun point, and failure to intervene were wrapped up into claims ranging from negligence per se to intentional infliction of emotional harm.”

One of the motels sought defense from its insurer, Nautilus Insurance Co. Nautilus argued it was not obligated to defend based on a policy exclusion for claims arising out of assault or battery. The court agreed, and an appellate court affirmed.

In other words, the motel owners were on the hook for their own legal costs.

In the second case, a court found the insurer – Peerless Indemnity Insurance Co. – must defend its client in a suit brought by a woman claiming she was imprisoned by a man grooming her for prostitution while the owners turned a blind eye. A lower court had dismissed the case, finding insufficient evidence the motel was engaged in trafficking. An appeals court overturned that decision.

“The relevant question,” the judge said, is whether the victim’s injuries constitute personal injury. This is because the definition of personal injury under the policy included injuries arising from false imprisonment.

Because her injuries, at least in part, arose from false imprisonment, the judge said, “the answer to that question is ‘Yes’.”

So, the court said, Peerless must pay to defend the motel.

Trafficking is a $32 billion-a-year industry. Insurers might want to review their policy language to avoid funding defenses of criminals and businesses that enable them.
Language matters

The differences between these rulings seem to have more to do with nuances in policy language than trafficking facts.

In the Nautilus case, the appeals court found the exclusion – stating Nautilus “will have no duty to defend or indemnify any insured in any action or proceeding alleging damages arising out of any assault or battery” – unambiguous. It declared: “Nautilus had no duty to defend and indemnify” because the claims “arose from facts alleging negligent failure to prevent an assault or battery.”

The Peerless case involved two policies – a general liability and an umbrella – both of which contained exclusions for “‘personal and advertising injury’ arising out of a criminal act committed by or at the direction of the insured.”

The “personal” in “personal and advertising injury” includes false imprisonment.

To a non-lawyer like me, this seems as unambiguous as the Nautilus case: the Peerless policies excluded personal injury “arising out of one or more” of a variety of offenses, including false imprisonment.

The U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts disagrees. Its analysis goes into semantic tall grass, parsing phrases like “arising out of” and “but for” and is peppered with case law citations like:

  • “Ambiguities are to be construed against the insurer and in favor of the insured” and
  • “The insurer bears the burden of demonstrating that an exclusion exists that precludes coverage.”

It would exceed the bounds of my non-existent legal training – and the length of a blog post – to critique the court’s analysis. I recommend reading the decision.

But it doesn’t take a lawyer to see insurers have a stake in reviewing and possibly tightening their policy language to avoid having to fund defenses of criminals and businesses that enable them.

Trafficking is a $32 billion-a-year (and growing) industry, according to the Polaris Project.  With that kind of money involved, cases like these won’t just go away.