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Jury says west Little Rock motel owes sex-trafficking victim

Owners told to pay $477,000 in damages by John Lynch | January 14, 2023 at 8:24 a.m.

A Pulaski County jury on Friday ordered the owners of a west Little Rock motel to pay a woman forced into sexual slavery $477,000 in damages for providing a safe haven for her sex-trafficking tormentors, a verdict ending a four-day trial before Circuit Judge Chip Welch.

The Jane Doe plaintiff had sued Patel Legacy Hotels LLC, operating the America's Best Value Inn at 200 S. Shackleford Road, after nearly dying more than four years ago in the motel parking lot from poisoned drugs she had bought there.

Security was so lax that the hotel management didn't know that police and paramedics had been at the hotel to save Jane Doe's life until the lawsuit was filed in 2021, her lawyers said.

"This motel was a haven [for] criminals," attorney Meredith Moore told jurors in closing arguments. "The way the motel acted -- like it always has -- they ignored her and let her life nearly slip away."

Further, motel operators Rick and Jay Patel "knew criminals are drawn to their hotel because conditions are favorable for the criminals," Moore said. They "know this and they don't care because they were making money. Their failures created the perfect storm environment for sex trafficking and criminal activity"

With an eye for profits over people, operators of the $65-per-night hotel provided little security for guests, allowing the 2-acre property near the intersection of Shackleford Road and West Markham Street to attract criminals, the lawyers said.

Moore and fellow lawyers Denise Hoggard and Eric Wewers of the Rainwater, Holt & Sexton firm said all the motel needed to make the grounds safer was to make more of an effort to report suspicious activity to the police, add some more staff and do better monitoring the premises, like with random safety patrols of the property, they said.

The only way to make hotels take safety seriously is to show them there's a cost if they don't, Hoggard said. Money is the only thing they understand, she said.

"Motels make money. Traffickers make money. Victims don't," she said. "You get to send a message to this hotel and every hotel that operates like this, that we won't tolerate this. Make the difference. Make the change. Take their money."

They said the hotel owners ignored a plea from the Little Rock chief of police in 2019 to help law enforcement rein in drug dealing in the area while also passing up free opportunities to learn about how to operate more safely, including specialized training to recognize and combat the "modern-day slavery" that is sex trafficking.

Raped as a child, Jane Doe was prostituted at age 12 by her mother, who followed that by getting her addicted to drugs, the woman said. She told jurors she wasn't quite sure how she ended up in Arkansas several years ago, saying she was in Texas when her pimp told her he was taking her to Louisiana and she was so drugged up she didn't remember getting here.

Describing a four-month routine involving regular visits to the motel, she said her exploiters, different men at different times, would bring her to the hotel once a month, where they'd put her in a room for three days, estimating she'd service an average of 10 men a day.

"If I didn't, I'd get beat up," she said, telling jurors she'd nearly been killed in one incident. "I was there to work."

They wouldn't keep her there more than three days at a time to avoid attracting attention, the woman said. They almost never rented rooms under their own names. She could not rent a room because she didn't have identification.

One trafficker forced her to get a tattoo symbolizing his name to mark her as his property, she said, as her lawyers showed jurors a picture. Jane Doe said she still fears and will always fear that her traffickers will find her and kill her, testifying that she has no interest in seeing them criminally prosecuted because that would require her to sacrifice anonymity. Suing the motel under the civil human-trafficking statute, Arkansas Code 16-118-109, allows her to seek some measure of justice, while preserving her safety, she said.

"I should have been protected when I was at America's Best Value Inn," she told jurors.

The night she was fed the poison pill, Jane Doe said she and her pimp had argued over money.

"He said we were going to America's Best Value to make some money," the woman testified.

She said she was on the end of a sleepless eight-day methamphetamine binge and had taken a Xanax from someone in the motel room, hoping it would help her sleep. The next thing she said she remembers is waking up in intensive care, where she spent the next three days.

The woman testified she could have been lying on the ground for as long as six hours before someone called for help. Reviving her took three doses of Narcan, and she suffered respiratory failure that required incubation.

She also learned in intensive care that she was pregnant with her sixth child, the only one she's been allowed to keep custody of.

She was able to get sober, start counseling and get her high school diploma due to the efforts of Partners Against Trafficking Humans, a nonprofit advocacy group for victims of sex abuse and sex trafficking. Raising her son is what keeps her motivated to succeed, she told jurors, saying she expects to remain in therapy for the rest of her life. She's taking college classes and hopes someday to be a mortician.

Her past life still exerts some hold on her, Jane Doe told jurors.

It's scarred her with post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression, she said, describing how she still struggles to trust others, control her occasional anger outbursts and overcome the bad dreams that regularly steal her sleep.

The motel denied wrongdoing, with lawyers David Donovan and Bradey Baltz arguing that the company, operating an admittedly "low-budget motel," did all that could sensibly be expected to provide for patrons' safety.

They said the motel operators Rick Patel, 33, the manager, and his uncle 59-year-old Jay Patel of Denton, Texas, the company founder, screened their guests to avoid renting to troublemakers and had revamped security cameras to discourage criminal activity. They further disputed whether Jane Doe was as helpless as she claimed, noting that she had demonstrated, at times, that she was free to come and go. Further, she'd been clean and sober before but then returned to sex-life, they said.

By siding with the plaintiffs, jurors would be imposing an unreasonably high standard on the motel and others like it, the lawyers said.

But jurors, after about 3½ hours of deliberations, found the hotel had not done enough for Jane Doe. They found her damages to be worth $900,000, with the American's Best responsible for 53% of that, $477,000.

Jurors found that Jane Doe was 7% responsible for what had happened to her, with the remaining 40% of blame attributed to the man she described as her primary trafficker, although he is not a party to the litigation.

Jane Doe's lawyers had asked for $1.2 million, citing evidence that the motel is earning $1.4 million a year, based on admissions that the facility has 80 rentable rooms with a daily occupancy rate of 60 rooms, for a total of 21,900 rooms sold per year at $65 per stay.


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