April 17, 2014

BARELY LEGAL: Renter, Beware: Bed Bugs Are Back

Print More

By JENNIFER BROKAMP

You’ve finally made it to New York City for your first job out of college. As you step into the pristine major office tower, you can’t believe how lucky you are to get to work in such an impressive place. Three whirlwind days of work later, everything is going great, that is, until you notice dozens of red bumps in sets of three all over your body. Bed bugs. And they’re coming from your office.

You might be thinking, aren’t bed bugs only in dirty homes or run down buildings? Unfortunately, no. Many people have been lulled into a false sense of security by believing that because they have a nice, clean living environment, they are immune to bed bugs. But bed bugs can infest any place where humans spend large amounts of time; cleanliness has nothing to do with it. Bed bugs began making their way back into American homes, retail stores, movie theaters, public transportation and anywhere their tiny apple seed-shaped bodies can be concealed. Infestations can start by picking up a bedbug at any of those places, and the public — which had lost the ability to combat these pests — was taken by surprise and left with minimal knowledge on how to eradicate them.

What makes these pests so particularly horrible is that they feed on blood while their victims are sleeping. Their bites cause bumps that can resemble mosquito bites or can become large, bulbous welts, depending on the person and their allergic reaction. Bed bugs can survive up to a year without food and can hide under floorboards even if an apartment is empty. While there are various methods of keeping a bed bug infestation at bay, full eradication is extremely difficult, especially in apartment complexes or offices because the most effective treatment must be applied to the whole building. Meanwhile, tenants must be meticulously clean, heat treat their possessions and throw away mattresses or large pieces of furniture that cannot be saved.

The social stigma, the difficulty of eradicating the bugs and the physical repercussions that victims face causes sometimes severe psychological problems. These problems unequivocally distinguish bed bugs from other types of pests, and it is imperative that lawmakers appreciate the difference. Bed bug victims can become paranoid, extremely anxious, depressed and overly emotional, leading to a great reduction in quality of life. Luckily, the experiences of victims all over the country has spurred a lot of legal action that caused some landlord-tenant lawyers to specialize in bed bug law, especially here in New York.

As the bed bug menace began to spread throughout North America once again, different states took different measures against them. Some states enacted legislation to help regulate the treatment of bed bugs, while others relied on the courts to settle the wide range of issues that result from bed bugs. Because of the difference in treatment of bed bug cases among states, some victims find themselves in better circumstances than others based solely on location.

After watching bed bugs in the courts for years, states have begun to consider and enact bed bug legislation. A handful of states, including New York, have passed legislation — which varies somewhat from state to state — but generally includes mandatory inspections by landlords and disclosure, followed by timely treatment. Ideally, citizens of every state should be protected from these debilitating pests and as awareness grows, hopefully more states will take aggressive action.

When a tenant brings a bed bug case to court in a state without bed bug legislation, the lawsuits often turns on who is at fault for the situation. There are a couple of methods that plaintiffs often try, including constructive eviction, implied warrant of habitability and, in extreme cases, negligence. These cases have a mixed level of success depending on the situation. Sometimes, the judge must agree that a bed bug infestation makes a premise uninhabitable. Other times, tenants must prove that the landlord had prior knowledge of the bed bug infestation before leasing the infested apartment to the tenants, all of which is very difficult.

A bed bug infestation creates massive amounts of stress for everyone involved. Unfortunately, most people are unable to conceptualize the magnitude of such an infestation and are unable to respond properly. While landlords do not deserve the entire burden of a bed bug infestation, courts and legislation must be more favorable to tenants simply because landlords, especially ones who have not dealt with bed bugs before, tend to underestimate the seriousness of a bed bug infestation and are in the best position to effectively combat an infestation. Since time is exceedingly important in controlling and eradicating an infestation, legal pressure on landlords might spark them into taking effective action before infestations get out of control.

Meanwhile, you can protect yourself from bed bugs by examining apartments for telltale signs of infestations before signing the lease and asking lots of questions. After returning from trips, immediately wash and dry your clothes and suitcase with high heat. If you suspect that your apartment is infested, early detection will greatly help with the eradication process, so call your landlord immediately. By raising awareness and taking a few easy precautions, we can help to stop the spread of bed bugs and work towards getting rid of them permanently.

Jennifer Brokamp is a second year at Cornell Law School.  She can be reached at jfb292@cornell.edu.  Barely Legal appears alternating Fridays this semester.