“Good Night, Sleep Tight, Don’t Let the Bedbugs Bite”

Published on: August 1, 2009

The resurgence of bedbugs in the United States has risen to epidemic levels with some calling it the “new mold”. First, some interesting facts about these lovely creatures: For centuries bedbugs have been driving sleepers crazy. These small (⅓ to ¼ inches long) biting bugs like warm environments, such as beds, and can survive for up to one (1) year without food. Their food of choice is blood, particularly human, and when they bite, they inject saliva that can cause an allergic reaction. Bedbugs are wingless, but move as hitchhikers, traveling in luggage and most anything else that will host these bugs and their eggs. With the decrease in pesticide use and the increase in foreign travel some agencies are reporting upwards of a 70% increase in bedbug complaints. A bedbug infestation can occur anywhere regardless of cleanliness or hygiene and while they seem to prefer furniture, they can hide in cracks, crevices and any place that they can crawl into, making multi-family dwellings the perfect target.

So what can owners of multi-family housing and property managers do about this growing epidemic? Any effective treatment plan will require a collaborative effort by both the Landlord and the tenants. At the first sign of bedbugs, the tenant should contact their Landlord and cooperate with both the Landlord and the pest control operator to implement an integrated pest management plan. This will generally involve at least two (2) separate chemical treatments to break the reproductive cycle of the bedbugs (bedbugs can lay up to 5 eggs a day and 500 in their life). The Landlord will have to then require and ensure that the tenants remove clutter from the apartment, conduct regular inspections, and vacuum crevices and furniture on a regular basis. Landlords should be responsive to any signs or complaints of bedbugs and contact a licensed pet control operator to inspect and treat the problem. The Landlord should also assist the tenant with de-cluttering the apartment and caulk and seal any crevices in the apartment where bedbugs can hide and later re-immerge. An effective pest management plan will generally include the treatment of all adjoining spaces to the affected apartment and in some cases may require the extermination of the entire building. It is important that the Landlord follow the recommendation of the professional exterminator.

The next question is usually “Who Pays”? The Massachusetts State Sanitary Code requires the Owner/Landlord to maintain the premises free of insect infestation and makes them responsible for extermination. As such, the Landlord will usually be responsible for the upfront costs of such extermination. However, where the source of such infestation can be traced to a specific tenant and if the tenant exacerbated the condition, an argument could be made that the tenant should bear some of the resulting costs. In some cases, a tenant that caused the infestation or failed to report the condition causing it to spread, may be subject to eviction.

In addition to paying for the extermination, Landlords should be aware of other potential liability, such as claims for Breach of the Warranty of Habitability and Negligent Failure to Repair. Currently, the case law in this area is limited and most reported cases involve hotels. However, it appears that the most significant exposure occurred in cases where the Owner/Landlord did not treat or properly respond to the reports of infestation. It is important for Landlords to document any complaints that come in and respond immediately with a pest management plan developed with the guidance of a licensed pest control operator. If a Landlord can show that they reacted immediately and appropriately to an infestation they are likely to reduce their potential liability as well as limit the scope and duration of the problem. The failure to properly and aggressively respond can often lead to potential liability and significant defense costs. Having nocturnal, bloodsucking insects in your building can be a nightmare, but believe me, paying a lawyer to defend you for not appropriately dealing with an infestation can be worse.