Apartment Ordered to Pay Resident $800,000 Over Bed Bug Infestation
The $800,000 jury award for a bed bug infestation to renter Faika Shaaban in Annapolis, Md. could have the multifamily and rental housing industries on edge.
The jury in case took just 15 minutes to reach a decision on the lawsuit, and the award was twice what Shaaban had sought, according to the Capital Gazette. The payout reportedly was the highest that lawyers had seen in such cases. (In 2002, a jury awarded $382,000 to a brother and sister who said they were attacked by bed bugs at a Chicago motel.)
Is this lawsuit settlement a harbinger of things to come? Possibly, but at the very least the case does highlight a growth in bed bug lawsuits nationwide.
“You are going to see a rapid growth of bed bug claims over the next decade,” lawyer Tom Campbell of Birmingham, Ala., who advises other lawyers, was quoted as saying in an article by the Baltimore Sun covering the case. “There are enough lawyers who are getting trained so that people will be able to find lawyers, so that people will find a way to get relief.”
And where do property management companies and rental housing owners find relief?
The Burden of Proof: Who’s Responsible for Bed Bugs?
With bed bugs on the rise, property managers are questioning the legal ramifications of their new residents. Can they be held liable if a resident files suit over the presence of bed bugs?
Since there isn’t an easy answer to this complex problem, I’m going to quote straight from the excellent publication from the National Apartment Association called Evicting Unwanted Residents: Responsibility, Prevention and Treatment of Bed Bugs in the Multifamily Industry:
“It is important to understand that the liability issues surrounding bed bug infestations are governed by state and sometimes local law. Responsibilities of property management companies may vary from state-to-state and range from zero liability to significant exposure. Deciding factors for assigning liability include the responsibilities of the owner and resident as defined by the language in lease documents, policies indicated to the prospective resident and the agreement between the management company and the owner.
In most jurisdictions, owners and management companies should take steps to guard against a negligence or gross negligence tort claim. An owner or management company is negligent if it fails to act reasonably in light of foreseeable risks that result in damages to the resident. The damage to the resident must be proximately caused by the negligence of the owner or management company. A defendant commits gross negligence if its acts or failures to act amount to willful or wanton disregard for its responsibilities. In essence, the defendant acted with reckless disregard or in bad faith. For example, ignoring bed bug complaints or attempting to “self-treat” the problem in an ineffective manner could result in a ruling of negligence.”
You could argue that the jury award in the Shaaban case demonstrates the ire of jurors not only over the insects but also over property managers or landlords who they feel didn’t deal with a known infestation.
In other words: negligence.
Shaaban’s attorney, Daniel W. Whitney, said it was the jury’s “opportunity to send a message to the community, to landlords, that you must abate [the bed bug infestation].”
Bed Bug Lease Addendums Provide Some Level of Protection
Property management companies and property owners are pushing to shift responsibility onto renters and tenants in leases that say that if bed bugs don’t turn up before or soon after a resident moves in, the resident must pay for extermination. One way to ensure that residents, owners, and property managers work together to minimize the potential for any bed bug outbreak in a rental dwelling or apartment community is to include a bed bug addendum in the lease.
The primary purpose of a bed bug addendum is to outline the responsibilities and potential liabilities of residents and owners when bed bugs are discovered in a rental dwelling. Yes, it involves extra paper work and time to train employees and educate residents, but preventing an $800,000 jury award from a lawsuit is well worth the extra effort.
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