Can I sue my landlord over a bedbug infestation?

Real estate, Rights, Tips & how-to

After being nearly eradicated by the now-banned pesticide DDT in the 1950’s, bedbugs have become a serious problem once again. These tiny insects, which feed on human blood and whose bites can cause skin rashes and other allergic reactions, can infest even the cleanest of apartments by hitching rides on suitcases and used furnishings. What’s worse, they appear to be evolving major resistances to the most common pesticides used against them.

If you’re suffering through a bedbug infestation, how to proceed may differ depending on where you live. Bedbug laws vary greatly from state to state. Some date back to the early 1900s and apply only to hotels, but others include apartments—and those have become a source of contention, as tenants and landlords point an accusatory finger at one another.

Deciding which party is responsible for a bedbug infestation can become an endless blame game. The landlord may accuse the tenant of bringing in the infestation, which could make the tenant liable for damages, whereas the tenant might claim that the infestation was dormant (bedbugs can survive months without feeding on blood) when he or she moved in, or that by law the property owner must insure that the domicile is habitable no matter what the cause.

Who is right and when?

Landlord responsibility

In most cases, the landlord is responsible for of ridding a unit of bedbugs. Bedbugs are notoriously capable of avoiding pesticide applications by migrating over wires and through walls into other units, so the landlord has a vested interest in rapidly containing an infestation.

Landlords may also be required to inform tenants of an apartment’s bedbug history. New York City and Maine have strict bedbug disclosure laws that landlords must adhere to, and similar laws exist on the local level in various jurisdictions across the country.

If a landlord has not disclosed a unit’s bedbug history or knowingly leases out an infested apartment, tenants should consider breaking the lease, suing the landlord for damages, or withholding rent, using what’s known as the repair-and-deduct remedy. If you’re going to deduct rental payments to make repairs or hire an exterminator, review your local tenants’ rights resources or consult an attorney to insure that you are proceeding correctly.

Liability of the tenant

In rare cases, the tenant will be liable for the damage bedbugs cause. In the same way that tenants would have to pay for a flea outbreak caused by their pet or for a cockroach infestation caused by their garbage, tenants who blatantly introduce bedbugs to a property may have to pay for any damage.

The burden would be on the landlord to prove that the tenant was responsible. Normally this would be done by consulting an exterminator, who would seek to pinpoint the origin of the infestation. If the exterminator finds a patch of eggs in a suitcase or under the tenant’s used mattress, the landlord might have a case.

Another way tenants might find themselves liable is if they fail to prepare for bedbug treatments. Eliminating a bedbug infestation is a time-consuming, difficult process. Normally, an exterminator will ask the landlord to issue bedbug treatment checklists to tenants weeks before the building is sprayed. If a tenant fails to adhere to these instructions, the landlord may be entitled to some form of financial recovery.

In most cases, however, tenants can rest assured that it is the landlord’s responsibility to stay on top of bedbug outbreaks. Since bedbug infestations have become commonplace, a landlord should expect that bedbug control will be a part of their maintenance obligations.

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