The Bed Bug Battle Rages On

They're back. Bed bugs have been staging a comeback across the country. Blame it on increased international travel, banning insecticides, careless housekeeping and more. Without careful planning and detection, there can be draconian legal implications.

Bed bugs are small, brownish, flattened insects. They feed on blood and are commonly found in mattresses, molding, cracks and behind wallpaper. They are not known to crawl long distances. They are proficient hitchhikers, traveling in luggage and on clothing and infesting homes, hotels, dorms, hospitals and even police precincts. Bed bugs have been known to survive 500 days without feeding, meaning they can crawl into luggage, live there for a year and a half and then crawl out and into a home or hotel room.

A bed bug bite has been described as being similar to that of a mosquito, but is not known to transmit diseases. While an allergic reaction is possible, it usually leaves only a small welt, irritation and itching. Three years ago, Federal Judge Richard Posner upheld a $382,000 award in a case in which a brother and sister were attacked by bed bugs while staying in a Chicago motel. A jury awarded them each $186,000 in punitive and $5,000 in compensatory damages.

In 2004, a New York judge ruled that a bed bug infestation is an intolerable condition that breaches the Warranty of Habitability. The plaintiff was able to show how the presence of bed bugs affected his health, safety and welfare. The court distinguished between bed bugs and other vermin and found that the presence of roaches and mice, while offensive, doesn't constitute constructive eviction, but bed bugs “feed upon one's blood in hordes while one is sleeping, thus turning a night's sleep into a hellish experience.”

A Catskills resort guest allegedly suffered over 500 bed bug bites during her stay. She sued the hotel for $20,000,000. The case is still pending.

In 2003, Reuejo Ventura claimed that he was mauled by bed bugs while staying at New York's Helmsley Park Lane Hotel. That case settled for $150,000.

The National Pest Management Association reported a 71-percent increase in bed bug-related calls from 2000 to 2005. This resurgence has had detrimental legal implications for hotels, landlords and management companies. In response to the resurgence, law makers in Hawaii, Boston and San Francisco have either passed laws or have pending legislation to address the issue.

The bottom line is that bedbugs are back, and vigilant prevention is the only appropriate response. Hoteliers can avoid a legal nightmare by having a plan of action for dealing with the bugs. Housekeepers can be trained to inspect using a check list. Once the presence of bed bugs becomes known, hoteliers have a duty to eradicate the problem. A qualified and licensed pest management specialist should be retained.

Timothy M. Wenk is a lawyer with Shafer Glazer, LLP, New York City, a civil litigation firm with an emphasis on negligence defense. He can be reached at 646-435-9436 or go to twenk@shaferglazer.com.

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