Good Night - Sleep Tight - Don't Let The Bedbugs Bite

By Ronald R. Rossi and Laurel M. Champion

March 27th, 2017

Bedbugs are back - and they seem to be here to stay. After DDT was used to attack these pests in the 1940s, people assume they had been largely eradicated, but after DDT was banned, and in the last two decades particularly, the bedbug population has climbed. Bedbugs are invading everything from movie theaters and offices to hotels, apartments, and other residential spaces, creating a plague of not only health problems but also some serious legal issues.

Eradicating bedbugs is a frustrating challenge. It only takes about 3 weeks for a bedbug to grow into an adult, and they live for nearly a year. They feed exclusively on blood and bite humans while they sleep, usually between midnight and sunrise. They feed, and they mate - and a single female bedbug can lay 1-5 eggs per day, starting a new generation. It's easy to see how and why the bedbug population increased exponentially in the last 10 years; it's not nearly as easy to figure out how to get these pests under control or eliminated.

Hotels and apartment owners in particular are being sued over bedbugs. In one Illinois case where a hotel chain hid the fact that bedbugs were present, the court allowed only $5,000 in general damages but awarded punitive damages of $186,000. In a New York case, an apartment owner was held liable for a breach of the warranty of habitability, and the court allowed rent abatement. Judges have written extensively about the need to listen to extermination services recommending certain spraying techniques, to spray all apartments in a building, to avoid renting space to people when bedbugs are present, and to disclose the presence of these pests.

Bedbugs spread rapidly and infest living spaces with ease. As stated in a New York law journal, and as entomologists well know, "These opportunistic parasites are proficient hitchhikers. They travel from one place to another in luggage and clothing, jumping off at homes, hotels, dorms .... What is worse is that these resilient pests have been known to survive 500 days without feeding[.]"

California is what is called a disclosure state, meaning that sellers of property must disclose to buyers anything that is not within observation of the buyer that might affect a property's value or desirability. Bedbug infestation is certainly one such issue. Between the stigma associated with such an infestation and the difficulty of eradicating them and treating the living space, an otherwise attractive property can quickly become the least desirable house in the neighborhood. Common treatments include the use of heat, pesticides, spot treatments, bedbug-sniffing dogs, carbon dioxide, dried ice, and industrial chemical treatments, all of which are expensive and require tenants to vacate the premises. In some apartments, bedbugs will re-establish themselves thanks to tenants visiting other areas with bedbugs and bringing them back to the building. Some properties battle recurring bedbug problems for years with no end in sight.

The California Legislature hopes to help address this problem via a new statutory disclosure law. This law, codified at California Civil Code Section 1942.5, 1954.1 and 1954.600 et seq., sets forth the duties and procedures for landlords and tenants relating to bedbugs. Prior law imposed various obligations on landlords who rented out residential dwelling units but generally limited these requirements to disclosing to new tenants a copy of the notice provided by a registered structural pest control company if a contract for periodic pest control service had been executed. The new disclosure law goes much further.

PROPERTY OWNERS' DISCLOSURE OBLIGATIONS

Under this new statutory scheme, beginning July 1, 2017, any landlord, prior to creating a new tenancy for a residential dwelling unit, must provide prospective tenants with a written notice. This notice must be provided to all existing tenants beginning January 1, 2018. Per the statute, the notice must be in at least 10 point type and must include at least the following:

The notice must first include general information about bedbugs:

  • Bedbug appearance: Bedbugs have 6 legs. Adult bedbugs have flat bodies about a quarter of an inch in length. Their color can vary from red and brown to copper colored. Young bedbugs are very small. Their bodies are about 1/16 of an inch in length. They have almost no color. When a bedbug feeds, its body swells, may lengthen, and becomes bright red, sometimes making it appear to be a different insect. Bedbugs do not fly. They can either crawl or be carried from place to place on objects, people, or animals. Bedbugs can be hard to find and identify because they are tiny and try to stay hidden.
  • Life cycle and reproduction: An average bedbug lives for about 10 months. Female bedbugs lay one to five eggs per day. Bedbugs grow to full adulthood in about 21 days.
  • Bedbugs can survive for months without feeding.
  • Bedbug bites: Because bedbugs usually feed at night, most people are bitten in their sleep and do not realize that they were bitten. A person's reaction to insect bites is an immune response and so varies from person to person. Sometimes the red welts caused by the bites will not be noticed until many days after a person was bitten, if at all.

Common signs and symptoms of a possible bedbug infestation:

  1. Small red to reddish-brown fecal spots on mattresses, box springs, bed frames, linens, upholstery, or walls;
  2. Molted bedbug skins, white, sticky eggs, or empty egg shells;
  3. Red, itchy bite marks, especially on the legs, arms, and other body parts exposed while sleeping (note, however, that some people do not show bedbug lesions on their bodies even though bedbugs may have fed on them); and
  4. Heavily infested areas may have a characteristically sweet odor.

Finally, the notice must include the protocol that the tenant must follow to report suspected infestations to the landlord.

The statute also requires a landlord who has engaged a pest control company to inspect a unit or its surrounding units to notify the units' tenants in writing of the pest control investigator's findings after the inspection. This notice must be made within 2 business days of receipt of the investigator's findings.

However, for confirmed infestations in common areas, all tenants shall be provided notice of the pest control personnel's findings.

RENTING UNITS PROHIBITED IF LANDLORD KNOWS OF AN INFESTATION

The new law goes on to prohibit a landlord from showing, renting, or leasing to a prospective tenant any vacant dwelling unit that the landlord knows has a current bedbug infestation. If a bedbug infestation is evident on visual inspection, the landlord is considered to have notice.

Notably, this law does not impose a duty on the landlord to inspect a dwelling unit or the common areas of the premises for bedbugs if the landlord has no notice of the suspected or actual bedbug infestation.

The new statutory scheme also provides that landlords may not engage in any retaliatory conduct against a tenant who notifies the landlord of finding or reasonably suspecting a bedbug infestation on the property.

COOPERATION BY TENANTS

Under the new law, California tenants are required to assist the landlord and the landlord's pest control company with any requested inspection and/or treatment of bedbugs. This includes providing any requested information to the pest control company and allowing entry into the rental unit on service of a proper 24-hour notice of entry for any initial and follow-up inspections and treatment of the unit and any surrounding units. The law speaks in general terms of the importance of cooperation among landlords and tenants and pest control personnel, the importance of early detection and best practices, and the importance of cooperation by tenants to reduce clutter, wash clothes, and follow other reasonable recommendations set forth by the pest control company.

Current property owners considering renting units or owning rental units should create a standard procedure for tenants to follow in the event a bedbug infestation is suspected or confirmed. Landlords also need to add the statutory bedbug notice as an addendum to their standard lease agreements and operative lease agreements in effect.

Under the new law, landlords need to be very careful not to turn a blind eye signs of infestation or ignore tenants' complaints about bedbugs, because the landlord will now be put on notice if a visual inspection shows the presence of bedbugs and/or a tenant complaint leads to discovery of an infestation. Landlords must now reasonably investigate any actual or suspected infestation.

The new disclosure statute is a starting point when it comes to dealing with this epidemic and its effects on housing. However, since bedbugs affect people in all socioeconomic strata and detecting and eradicating them is so difficult, we doubt that this will be the last attempt to find a cure for this particular plague.

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