Bed Bug Law Suits on the increase

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The Baltimore Sun reports:

Faika Shaaban developed an itchy rash the day she moved into an Annapolis apartment in the fall of 2011.

The hundreds of bites, the lesions and the resulting scarring were from bedbugs. She had no idea that she’d rented an apartment whose landlord had been notified of a potential bedbug infestation only weeks earlier, according to her lawsuit against the landlord.

An Anne Arundel County jury awarded the 69-year-old woman $800,000 this week, an amount that lawyers familiar with such cases said was the highest they have seen. Most of that — $650,000 — was in punitive damages, more than she had sought.

The case highlights the growth in bedbug lawsuits nationwide. And it demonstrates the ire of jurors not only over the insects but also over landlords who they feel didn’t deal with a known infestation, said Shaaban’s attorney, Daniel W. Whitney of Towson.

“She lost practically everything due to this,” he said.

He said it was the jury’s “opportunity to send a message to the community, to landlords, that you must abate it.”

The defendant, landlord Cornelius J. Barrett and West Street Partnership, which owns the property and of which Barrett is a general partner, did not respond to the lawsuit, according to Whitney and court records. He could not be reached to comment.

In a 2002 case, a jury awarded $382,000 to a brother and sister who said they were besieged by bedbugs at a Motel 6 in Chicago when they stayed in a room that management knew was infested.

Whitney has more than 75 bedbug cases, nearly all in Maryland, and said he’s turned away hundreds of potential bedbug clients in the past two-and-a-half years.

“You are going to see a rapid growth of bedbug claims over the next decade. There are enough lawyers who are getting trained so that people will be able to find lawyers, so that people will find a way to get relief,” said lawyer Tom Campbell of Birmingham, Ala., who advises other lawyers.

This week’s verdict has landlords taking notice.

A landlord doesn’t put bedbugs in a unit, yet “the landlord is being faced with the burden of fixing this problem,” said Ben Frederick, president of the Property Owners Association of Greater Baltimore.

Landlords are pushing to shift responsibility onto tenants in leases that say that if bedbugs don’t turn up before or soon after a tenant moves in, the tenant must pay for extermination.

Greg Countess, assistant director of advocacy at the Maryland Legal Aid Bureau, said he is increasingly seeing leases that give the landlord reason to terminate a lease and evict a tenant if the landlord can prove a tenant brought in bedbugs. Many landlords, he said, push tenants to buy renters’ insurance “to protect property that might be lost due to a bedbug infestation.”

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