Street Law: I Found Bed Bugs In My New Apartment, Now What?

Bed bug bites are caused primarily by two species of insects of the Cimex type: Cimex lectularius (the common bed bug) and Cimex hemipterus, primarily in the tropics. Bed bugs’ increased presence across the United States in recent decades can be attributed largely to a surge in international travel and trade. It’s no surprise then that bed bugs have been found time and time again to have taken up residence in some of the fanciest hotels and apartment buildings in some of the nation’s most expensive neighborhoods. Nonetheless, false claims that associate bed bugs’ presence with poor hygiene and uncleanliness have caused apartment residents, out of shame, to avoid notifying landlords of their presence. This serves only to enable the spread of bed bugs.

While bed bugs are, by their very nature, more attracted to clutter, they’re certainly not discouraged by cleanliness. Bottom line: bed bugs know no social and economic bounds; claims to the contrary are false.

The Burden of Proof: Who’s Responsible for Bed Bugs?

With bed bugs on the rise, property managers are questioning the legal ramifications of their new residents. Can they be held liable if a resident files suit over the presence of bed bugs? It is important to understand that the liability issues surrounding bed bug infestations are governed by state and local law. At the end of this article is the Tulsa Ordinance that clearly delineates the circumstances when the owner or the occupant is responsible for bed bugs in single and multi-family dwellings. Responsibilities of property management companies may vary from state-to-state and range from zero liability to significant exposure. Deciding factors for assigning liability include the responsibilities of the owner and resident as defined by the language in lease documents, policies indicated to the prospective resident and the agreement between the management company and the owner.

In most jurisdictions, owners and management companies should take steps to guard against a negligence or gross negligence tort claim. An owner or management company is negligent if it fails to act reasonably in light of foreseeable risks that result in damages to the resident. The damage to the resident must be proximately caused by the negligence of the owner or management company. A defendant commits gross negligence if its acts or failures to act amount to willful or wanton disregard for its responsibilities. In essence, the defendant acted with reckless disregard or in bad faith. For example, ignoring bed bug complaints or attempting to “self-treat” the problem in an ineffective manner could result in a ruling of negligence.”

Bed Bug Lease Addendums Provide Some Level of Protection

Property management companies and property owners are pushing to shift responsibility onto renters and tenants in leases that say that if bed bugs don’t turn up before or soon after a resident moves in, the resident must pay for extermination. One way to ensure that residents, owners, and property managers work together to minimize the potential for any bed bug outbreak in a rental dwelling or apartment community is to include a bed bug addendum in the lease. The primary purpose of a bed bug addendum is to outline the responsibilities and potential liabilities of residents and owners when bed bugs are discovered in a rental dwelling. Yes, it involves extra paper work and time to train employees and educate residents, but preventing a large jury award from a lawsuit is well worth the extra effort.

The problem with the bed bug addendum is most property owners aren’t actually having apartments inspected by licensed pest control operators or firms, nor are they providing copies of the inspection results. In addition to this, bed bug addendums are one sided, purely for the benefit of the property owners, not the residents. More or less residents take full responsibility for bedbug infestations, regardless if they are responsible for the infestation or not. It can take fourteen days or longer for bedbugs who are already established in a dwelling to make their presence known, so forty-eight hours is absolutely a nonsensical amount of time to “identify” a current infestation in a vacant apartment.

Tulsa Code of Ordinances

TITLE 55 – PROPERTY MAINTENANCE CODE

Section 309. – Pest elimination.

309.1 Infestation. Structures shall be kept free from insect and rodent infestation. Structures in which insects or rodents are found shall be promptly exterminated by approved processes that will not be injurious to human health. After pest elimination, proper precautions shall be taken to prevent re-infestation.

309.2 Owner. The owner of any structure shall be responsible for pest elimination within the structure prior to renting or leasing the structure. Where the infestations are caused by defects in the structure, the owner shall be responsible for pest elimination.

309.3 Single occupant. The occupant of a one-family dwelling or of a single-tenant nonresidential structure shall be responsible for pest elimination on the premises.

309.4 Multiple occupancy. The owner of a structure containing two or more dwelling units, a multiple occupancy, a rooming house or a nonresidential structure shall be responsible for pest elimination in the public or shared areas of the structure and exterior property. If infestation is caused by failure of an occupant to prevent such infestation in the area occupied, the occupant shall be responsible for pest elimination.

309.5 Occupant. The occupant of any structure shall be responsible for the continued rodent and pest-free condition of the structure.

107.6 Transfer of ownership. It shall be unlawful for the owner of any dwelling unit or structure who has received a compliance order or upon whom a notice of violation has been served to sell, transfer, mortgage, lease or otherwise dispose of such dwelling unit or structure to another until the provisions of the compliance order or notice of violation have been complied with, or until such owner or the owner’s authorized agent shall first furnish the grantee, transferee, mortgagee or lessee a true copy of any compliance order or notice of violation issued by the Code official and shall furnish to the Code official a signed and notarized statement from the grantee, transferee, mortgagee or lessee, acknowledging the receipt of such compliance order or notice of violation and fully accepting the responsibility without condition for making the corrections or repairs required by such compliance order or notice of violation.

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