Posts Tagged Litigation

Landlord Owes $40,000 to Tenant In Baltimore Bed Bug Lawsuit

I stated in one of my prior posts that with the influx of bed bug infestations around the country, that it would only be a matter of time until we saw an increase in bed bug litigation as well.

While bed bug litigation is in its infancy, it has taken a large step forward recently.

A jury in Baltimore recently awarded a tenant $40,000 in damages, in what is described by the tenant’s attorney as the “first bed bug trial in Baltimore.”  While I was not present at the 3 day trial or able to read a transcript of the trial, a recent news report indicates that the basis of the large damage award was the landlord’s delay in addressing the bed bug infestation in the tenant’s apartment.  Allegedly, the bed bugs were introduced into the apartment complex by a neighboring tenant who then vacated, causing the bed bugs to migrate to the plaintiff’s unit in search of food.

This verdict should concern landlords everywhere.  We are now aware know that 12 individuals in Baltimore, felt a tenant should be awarded damages, and a landlord should be required to pay them, even though the landlord did not introduce the pests into the apartment complex.  The jury award was based solely on the landlord’s delay in addressing and resolving the bed bug infestation.

This is a warning to landlords everywhere that you cannot just sit back and tell your tenants that it is their responsibility to get rid og the bed bugs, even if the tenant brought the pests to the apartment.  I have fielded many telephone calls from landlords and management companies, where I was told that the landlord/agent didn’t feel that they should be required to eradicate the bed bugs since it was the tenant that brought them into the unit.

I think it would be foolhardy to sit back and require your tenant to eradicate the bugs.  My advice to landlords is that you — the landlord — should take control of the situation and vet and hire a qualified exterminator.  If you leave it to your tenants to eradicate the bed bugs, you may be sorry.  A tenant may attempt to use homemade remedies that do not work and will allow the infestation to grow larger.  A tenant may elect to use bug bombs — which wil only cause the bed bugs to spread out to different units, making treatment harder.

It is your property.  It is your investment.  Do not trust its safekeeping to a tenant.  You want to ensure that the situation  is handled promptly and professionally.  You can deal with who should responsible for the cost of eradication after the bed bugs have been killed.

We will be seeing more and more bed bug litigation in the future.  The plaintiff’s lawyer in Baltimore  — who hilariously is known as “Maryland’s bedbug barrister”  — was quoted as saying that he has been contacted by more than 200 people in the last couple of years regarding handling their bed bug lawsuits and that he currently has 18 bed bug lawsuits pending.

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Bedbugs, Bedbugs and More Bedbugs!

Since my earlier post on the topic of bedbugs, I have been innodated with more and more information on bed bugs.  It seems that every blog or newspaper article you read, every radio station that you listen to, and/or television station that you watch has recently addressed this lovely topic.  As a result I thought I would devote another blog post to this topic replete with multiple links to the recent information that I have been reading, listening to, and watching.

The New York Times, in a September 5th, 2010 article, states that “according to Google, general searches for “bedbugs” have increased 83% in the last year and 182% for bedbug-related searches in the last four weeks compared with the same period one year earlier.”

Milwaukee Magazine’s Milwaukee News Buzz recently published an article explaining that in 2009 the incidence of bedbugs was highest in the Northeast regions of the U.S. but that these pests have expanded significantly thoughout the Midwest — they have arrived in Milwaukee with a vengeance.

In a different article, the New York Times states that “despite what is often referred to as the “ick factor,” bedbugs are relatively clean.”  Studies have been conducted trying to determine whether or not bed bugs can carry disease.  To date, not one study has proven that bed bugs carry diseases.  In South Africa researchers have fed bedbugs blood that contains the AIDS virus only to find that the virus dies while in the bed bug.  While bedbugs can contain the hepatitus B virus for bugs, studies have show that when the bugs bite chimpanzees, the infection is not passed on to the chimp.

While not necessarily recent — although I did recently discover it — Phil Pellitteri of the U.W. Insect Diagnostic Lab wrote a Lab Note entitled Bed Bugs In Wisconsin, which is chock full of information that many of the news articles leave out.  According to the Note, bed bugs feed for 3-10 minutes at a time and they will try to feed again 5-10 days later.  In Wisconsin there are four different kinds of bedbugs: the human bed bug, the eastern bed bug and two kinds of bird feeding bedbugs.  No suprise that the human bedbug (which prefers to feed on humans) is the hardest type to eradicate.  Mr. Pellitteri also has some amazing (ly disgusting) close-up photos of these critters.

Time magazine, has a beautiful photo essay on the “pest of the year” — these photos were taken under a microscope and provide so much detail that you  may want to avert your eyes at times.

New York has been so hard hit by bedbug infestations that state housing officials have created a new law that requires all New York landlords to provide rental applicants and tenants with a document that discloses any prior bed bug infestation history.  Here is a copy of the disclosure form.  Here is a copy of the complaint form for tenant’s to use if their New York landlord does not provide them with the bedbug infestation disclosure form.

Bedbug outbreaks have caused so much disruption in Ohio and Kentucky that some pest controllers in those two states are asking the EPA to allow them to use a highly toxic chemical – propoxur — which has been shown to cause nervous-system damage in children, in order to attack these bugs in limited situations.

In Cincinnati, one of the cities that has been the hardest hit by bedbugs, a commission has been created to address and attack the bedbug problems facing the city. 

Bedbugs are not just infiltrating beds and bedrooms anymore.  USA Today published an article about the proliferation of bedbug infestations in offices.  According to the article, publishing giant Time magazine recently brought in bedbug sniffing dogs to check for infestations.  The IRS had bedbugs in its Philadelphia and Covington, Kentucky offices.  Ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi had a minor bedbug issue in its New York office.  Reports of bedbugs in AMC movie theater chains and the Empire State Building in New York are also well recognized.  According to a survey mentioned in the USA Today article, four out of every 10 bedbug treatments performed by pest management firms were in commercial buildings.

Additional reports of bedbugs have been noted in movie theaters, clothing stores, food plants, factories, and airplanes.  The popular-with-the hip-kids clothing store, Ambercrombie and Fitch, had to close two of its stores in NYC in July to deal with bedbug infestations.  Bedbugs have also taken over college dormitories at Catawba College, Wake Forest, NYU, Penn State and Missouri State.

While a general pain in the the backside for most of us, the bedbug explosion is creating a new niche for several pest eradication businesses, says the New York Times in a September 8, 2010, article.  Costs of eradication can run from hundreds of dollars to spray a small apartment for bedbugs to over $1,000 for heat treatment.  Bedbug sniffing dogs — which are said to “alert” to live bedbugs.  One lady, recently laid off from work, bought a specially trained bedbug sniffing beagle for $9,700 and recouped all of her costs in just 3 months doing just 1-3 inspections per week.

Web sites have been created which encourage people to report hotels, apartment complexes, and other locations were bedbugs have been seen — bedbugregistry.com and bedbugreports.com are two such sites.

National Public Radio’s Terri Gross recently aired a 30 minute piece on on bedbugs during her Fresh Air program on September 8, 2010, cutely titled “Good Night, Sleep Tight, Don’t Let The Bedbugs . . . .” 

I located one website based out of New York, entitled Bedbugger.com, which serves as a clearinghouse of all things bedbug related. 

Problems recently arose in Boston with the transition of students prior to the new school year, per a recent NY Times article.  One of the key problems is that students are discarding used furniture (that may contain bedbugs) and other students are picking up that same furniture to use in their new apartments.  The Mayor of Boston has been discouraging the use of secondhand furniture in the city.  Boston’s Inspectional Services Department have even gone so far as to create bright orange stickers that they stick on discarded furniture that read “Caution this may contain bedbugs, do not remove.”  Despite such warning, many students will still take the discarded furniture.

If you had told me early this spring that tenants would ignore telltale signs of bedbug infestation in used furniture and still use the furniture in their apartment I would not have believed you.  But this past summer while visiting a client’s apartment complex, I watched a manager inspect a used couch that a tenant wanted moving into their apartment.  The manager found clear indications of bedbugs on the couch — which he showed to the tenant – and forbade the tenant from moving the couch into the apartment building.  Just a few minutes later, after the manager and I returned from taking care of another issues, I witnessed that same tenant returning to his truck with an empty dolly —- he had disregarded the manager’s warning and moved the bedbug-infested couch into the apartment building anyhow.  I was blown away by this.

As can be expected, there as also been a sharp increase in litigation involving bedbugs.  A couple that stayed in a Catskills resort has sued the hotel they stayed in for $20 million after the wife sufferred over 500 bedbug bites and had a severe allergic reaction that resulted in a hospital stay.  A Fox News Channel employee sued the building owner, and management comany claiming she got bedbugs from working at the city newsoom in New York, and that the defendants were negligent in rectifying the situation.  While there are reports of many lawsuits being filed as a result of bedbugs, most appear to have been settled out of court prior to trial, to avoid negative publicity.

I performed a Westlaw search on bedbug-related lawsuits in Wisconsin a few days ago and only found one case that has any precedential value in this state.  The case is from 2003 and is entitled Mathias v. Accor Economy Lodging, Inc., 347 F.3d 672, and involves a guest of a Motel 6 hotel chain that sued the hotel for damages caused by the hotel ignoring the many bedbug infestations in many of the hotel rooms.  The evidence that was presented demonstrated that the hotel was aware of the bedbug problems.  Nonetheless the hotel refused to perform suggested eradication measures and continued to rent out hotel rooms, to unsuspecting guests, that they knew were infested with bedbugs based on prior guests’ reports.  One guest complained of bedbugs in his hotel room and was moved to another room, where he then located more bedbugs, and had to be moved again.  A jury awarded the plaintiff/guest $5,000 in compensatory damages and $186,000 in punitive damages.  The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the jury award (which had been appealed by the hotel chain)  and went so far as to state that the hotel’s “failure to warn guests or to take effective measures to eliminate bedbugs amounted to fraud and probably to battery as well.”

Lawsuits are even being filed by companies that produce products to assist in the eradication of bedbugs.  Bloomburg Businessweek reported on September 17, 2010 that JAB Distributors, Inc., which produces a pateneted bed bug proof mattress cover called “Protect-A-Bed” sued Martha Stewart Living for infringing on JAB’s patent when it sold a competing mattress cover that was impervious to bedbugs.

On September 21, 2010, I was listening to the radio (Bob and Brian in the morning, specifically) and learned that Rosemount, Illinois was hosting the North American Bedbug Summit that day and there were over 400 attendees signed up to attend.  The Summit was covered by the Today Show.

Bedbugs are amazing critters that can live up to a year without feeding ( I find that hard to believe but that is what I read) and they reproduce like guppies.  A universal theme in all the articles that I read, videos that I watched, and broadcasts that I listened to, was that prevention is the best way to defeat the bedbug.  Clearly education is needed on this topic for both landlords and tenants.  As long as we have landlords that believe they can kill infestations with moth balls and tenants that continue to move bedbug-infested furniture into their apartments, this problem will continue and grow larger.  The costs to eradicate these varmits can put many a landlord “into the red” and out of business. 

I suggest that we as landlords learn all we can about preventing bedbugs form infesting our rental properties.  We should then take things a step further and pass that education that we learned to our tenants.  I am even considering adding to my rental agreement that my tenants cannot move any used or secondhand furniture into my rental units.   I have clients that have spent close to $100,000 to date on bedbug eradication measures.  I don’t know about you but I do not make enough money as a landlord to be able to afford paying hundreds or even thousands of dollars to eradicate a bedbug infestation.

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