Are Landlords Responsible for Bed Bugs?

Bed bugs in a rental unit pose a number of headaches for landlords.  Immune to many commercial pesticides, extremely tolerant of both cold and heat, and able to live for over a year without a meal, bed bugs are tough to eradicate – and the problems don’t stop there.  The stigma of a bed bug infestation can drive off potential clients or renters, and in some courts, bed bug infestations have become the basis of lawsuits.

Bed Bugs Lawsuits

All states, as well as federal housing agencies, require residential rental units to live up to an “implied warranty of habitability.”  Generally speaking, a unit is “habitable” if it is fit for occupation for human beings and it substantially complies with local, state, or federal health and building codes that materially affect the health and safety of tenants.  Rental units must generally be “habitable” when they are rented, and landlords are responsible for fixing any condition that makes the unit “uninhabitable” while the tenants are present.

Many local and state health and safety codes place a duty on landlords to keep rental premises free of vermin, including insect infestations.  Some insect infestations are more dangerous to human health than others.  Although the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have not ranked bed bugs as particularly dangerous in the past, two developing conditions – one legal, one medical – mean that bed bugs may become the source of more successful lawsuits against landlords in future years.

What Are the Risks of Bed Bug?

Legally, bed bug infestations have been the basis of several successful lawsuits in various U.S. states.  In Ludlow Properties, LLC. v. Peter H. Young (New York, 2004), the trial court found that a bed bug infestation constituted a breach of the warranty of habitability and the tenant was entitled to a 45 percent rent reduction – notwithstanding the landlord’s attempts to eradicate the infestation.  In Mathias v. Accor Economy Lodging (7th Cir. 2003), a motel chain faced a $382,000 damages payment after guests brought a bedbug-based claim.

Medically, bed bug bites – once thought to be little more than an itchy annoyance – are posing greater dangers.  A study published in the Journal of Emerging Infectious Diseases in 2011 found that bed bugs may transmit drug-resistant strains of MRSA and VRE – two serious infections that may require extensive medical care to treat.  While studies are still uncovering whether and how bed bugs might transmit these antibiotic-resistant diseases, a landlord whose tenants become ill with one during a bedbug infestation may face significant legal troubles.

What to Do When Tenants Sound the Alarm

Landlords who hear of a bed bug infestation in a rental unit should move immediately to fight the infestation by seeking the help of pest-control professionals with bed bug experience.  From rent reductions to constructive-eviction lawsuits, bed bugs pose problems for landlords, and an infestation in one unit can easily spread to an entire building.  Addressing the problem immediately and aggressively can help landlords reduce potential liability when bedbugs strike.

Note: This article is provided for informational purposes only.  No information provided in this article should be considered legal advice.  If you have legal questions, please consult an attorney who is licensed to practice law in your area.

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