A recent epidemic of civil ligation has begun to emerge in several states over bedbugs. Most notably is the $800,000 verdict awarded to an Annapolis, Maryland woman. Ms. Faika Shaaban sued her landlord, Mr. Cornelius J. Barrett, upon her discovery that the landlord had knowingly rented her an apartment infested with bedbugs. In her complaint, Ms. Shaaban alleged to have been bitten hundreds of times by bedbugs and claimed that all of her personal property was destroyed as a result of the bedbug infestation. Ms. Shaaban sought both punitive damages and $150,000 in compensatory damages.
During the course of the trial, facts emerged that Mr. Barrett had neglected in his duties to maintain the apartment in a safe and habitable condition. Records from the City of Annapolis were introduced to demonstrate Mr. Barrett’s flagrant disregard for the conditions of this particular apartment.
City records indicated that Mr. Barrett had been notified of both a bedbug infestation and a mouse infestation not more than one month before he rented the apartment to Ms. Shaaban, infestations not disclosed to Ms. Shaaban at the time she executed her lease agreement. City records also indicated that Mr. Barrett, rather than seeking the assistance of professional pest control technicians, resorted to so-called “home remedies,” including the use of propane heaters which ultimately exacerbated the pest control problem.
Jury deliberations lasted approximately 45 minutes before the jury came back and rendered a verdict that shocked even the plaintiff’s counsel. In addition to the compensatory damages of $150,000.00 the jury awarded Ms. Shaaban $650,000.00 in punitive damages. Clearly, the jury was sending a message to landlords in Maryland that they cannot ignore pest infestations without serious repercussions.
Significant bedbug litigation, however, is not limited to Maryland. For example, the Iowa Supreme Court just certified the class-action status of three hundred (300) residents seeking to sue their landlord for a bedbug infestation that allegedly engulfed the entire community. The lawsuit alleges violations ofIowa’s consumer protection law and claims the apartment managers assured tenants that the apartments were habitable despite knowing of the bedbug problem. In another case, aNew Yorkwoman who said she was traumatized after suffering 25 bedbug bites at a Holiday Inn inNorth Carolinain October has filed a lawsuit against the company that operates the hotel chain. She is alleging negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress and breach of contract and seeking seven million dollars in damages.
Property management firms and property owners should take heed to the lessons learned by the landlords in the abovementioned states. Arizonahas enacted strict laws aimed at addressing the bedbug epidemic and imposing strict duties on landlords. For example, A.R.S. § 33-1319(A)(2) provides “[T]he landlord shall not enter into any lease agreement with a tenant for a dwelling unit that the landlord knows to have a current bedbug infestation” (emphasis added). Additionally,Arizonalandlords are required to provide informative bedbug material to all residents, including but not limited to, common causes and signs of bedbug infestations and ways to avoid bedbugs. A.R.S. § 33-1319(A)(1). While Arizona landlord-tenant law differs from Maryland law, it is not unreasonable to expect similar verdicts from Arizona juries.
Landlords receiving complaints from its residents concerning bedbugs are strongly encouraged to contact their pest control service provider and take immediate and reasonable action to address all bedbug and pest control issues. Landlords seeking guidance as to the legal requirements imposed on them byArizonalaw are encouraged to contact their legal counsel.