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Bed bug liability poses legal quandary

When a tenant is sleeping tight and the bed bugs bite, litigation is often contemplated, but rarely ends up in the courtroom.

With infestations on the rise nationally, local landlords and lawyers have seen an increase in the number of complaints tied to the persistent pest, but the vast majority of disputes never reach the courtroom.

The reason is that while the existence of bed bugs is easy enough to prove, determining how they got there and who is to blame is difficult, which rarely makes litigation worthwhile.

Milwaukee attorney Tristan R. Pettit said it is easier to defend a bed bug case because of the difficulty in proving a claim.

In the one bed bug trial the Petrie & Stocking lawyer had, he successfully represented a landlord who was sued for back rent for allegedly causing and then failing to treat an infestation.

The case was dismissed as the tenant could not meet the burden of proof to show the landlord was responsible for the problem.

“We really didn’t believe anything the tenant was saying and we were prepared to prove the tenant brought them in, but it never got that far,” Pettit said.

Wisconsin statute dictates that landlords have a duty to maintain a habitable residence for tenants, to include structural maintenance, unless repairs are necessary due to the negligence or improper use of the premises by the tenant.

If a tenant carries in a couch off the street and soon after bed bugs invade their apartment, landlords have a strong argument that they aren’t liable for the problem, said Herrick & Kasdorf attorney Juscha E.M. Robinson.

Prior to joining Herrick & Kasdorf in Madison, Robinson worked for Tenant Resource Center, Inc., a nonprofit organization providing information about housing laws to tenants and landlords around Wisconsin.

“There is definite pushback from landlords that this is the tenant’s fault and therefore they are not responsible for property lost to bed bugs,” she said.

If bed bugs are suspected in an apartment unit, landlords said they try to work with tenants to mitigate the problem. Property owners often pay for an inspection and generally attempt to work out an agreement with the renter, depending on the severity of the infestation.

Susan Ipsarides, Portfolio Director at Midwestern property management company StuartCo., said that generally, if inspectors determine a source, she will negotiate with a tenant to split the cost of treatments, which tend to be one a month for three months. Treatment totals are about $5,000 and Ipsarides said tenants often pay after the fact, if at all. For those who agree to pay, but don’t, the cost is usually deducted from their security deposit once they leave or ends up on their credit report as a balance owed to the property manager.

But the reality for property owners is they are often on the hook for the cost of eradicating the pests, regardless of the source, because tenants can’t cover the expense of effective treatments.

According to the City of Milwaukee Department of Neighborhood Services, proven methods for eliminating bed bugs, such as “thermal remediation,” can cost between $1,000 and $6,000.

“The school of thought is to pass along the cost to residents if they are the ones who brought them in,” said Ipsarides. “Unfortunately, if they don’t have the money, I have to eat that cost.”

Landlords are also willing to avoid the negative publicity that comes with litigation over bed bugs and come to an agreement with tenants for rent discounts or termination of the lease.

Ipsarides recently had a tenant vacate after bed bugs were found and she withheld the security deposit to help cover extermination costs.

“Once they get the problem tenant out, landlords make a business decision whether to go after the tenant,” Robinson said. “My guess is there isn’t a whole lot of that.”

For attorneys who represent tenants, there is also the element of whether it’s worth it to pursue a bed bug case.

Wassel, Harvey & Schuk attorney Brian A. Schuk frequently represents renters in landlord-tenant issues and said one of the big concerns is getting paid, because tenants by nature don’t have any money.

“I think the question from a renter’s perspective is ‘what do you want to do?’” he said. “If a tenant just wants to move out, forget about landlord-tenant law, there is always contract law.”

Jack Zemlicka can be reached at jack.zemlicka@wislawjournal.com.

6 comments

  1. Hello just would like to know if filing a law suit against a school for failing to inform parents about bed bug infestion and my child has over fifty bites on him and the school never said anything they tried to cover it up I’m the one who informed all the parents of the class about the situation and all of the children were infected badly

  2. Where is the school? You can contact me if you want to discuss your legal options.

  3. WHAT IF YOU HAVE BED BUGS AND MICE, I HAVE ANXIETY AND DEPRESSION DISORDER AND I AM TERRIFIED OF MICE AND BED BUGS I CAUGHT THREE MICE ON STICKY TRAPS IM SO SCARED OF THEM THAT IF A MAN IS NOT IN THE HOUSE TO TAKE IT OUT I WOULD FIND A STRANGER TO CHECK IT AND TAKE OUT, LONG STORY SHORT I JUST WENT INTO MY KITCHEN AND A MICE LITERALLY RAN ACCROSE MY FEET TOUCH MY FOOT, I CAN’T GO RUN IN MY ROOM AND HOP IN MY BED LIKE I USED TO BECAUSE IM BEING ATE UP BY BED BUGS!!IM FORCED TO SLEEP IN MY LIVINGROOM COUCH WHICH IS FACED TORCED THE KITCHEN WHERE I SEE THE MICE. WHAT DO I DO? MY I ONCE HAD A PROBLEM WITH MY FURNACE GOING OUT AND MY PROPERTY MANGER DID NOTHING ABOUT AFTER 16 DAYS I WAS FORCED TO PAY A MAN WHO CLAIM TO BE A HEATING AND COOLING SPECIALIST $500 IN WHICH I WAS RIPPED OFF, BUT HE DID GET THE FURACE BACK WORKING. ALL BECAUSE MY PROPERTY MANGER FAILED TO DO SO. AND REFUSED TO REIMBURSE ME MY $500!!! I HAVE NEVER BEEN LATE ON PAYING MY RENT, IM ON DISABLITY AND MY RENT IS $795 I ALSO PAY A WATER BILL, AND IM RENTING A DUPLEX. IM TERRIFIED IN MY OWN HOME WITH ANXIETY DISORDER, I.ALSO HAVE THREE CHILDREN….. SOMEONE PLEASE HELP IM OUT OF OPTIONS IM A NEAT PERSON IN CLEANING MY HOUSE… WITH THIS ANXIETY DISORDER NOT BEING ABLE TO LEAVE OUT MY HOUSE SOMETIMES NOT EVEN OUT MY ROOM…IDK WHAT TO DO MY CHEST IT HURTING CANT SLEEP IN MY BED FORCED TO SEE MICE RUNNING AROUND WHAT DO I DO I KNOW IT SOUNDS CRAZY BUT I FEEL I LIKE A PRISONER IN MY OWN HOME.. I HAVE ALWAYS HAD ANXIETY DISORDER BUT I NEVER HAD TO DEAL WITH MICE AND BED BUGS!!!!!SOMEONE SHOULD HAVE A SOLUTION……

  4. My lease is up at the end of this month. At the beginning to middle of Jan., I had bed bugs that were from the tenant across the hall. They also never treated for them. I am obligated to pay two months after the lease because of not giving a 60 day notice. But I did not have 60 days prior to the end of the lease to give a notice as a result of the failure to treat for them….what is your advice?

  5. OK how would it work if I can get the tenets that lived here before me that can say the bed bugs were here before I moved in would I have a chance at winning the case

  6. Hi my downstairs neighbor just discovered she has bed bugs. The orkin man checked all 4 units and her is the only one. He did say they are in her woodwork. What are my rights if they spread up to my apartment? My landlord says they arent bedbugs but the orkin man confirmed the bug were in fact bed bugs

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