Bedbugs and Lease Obligations

A tenant reported a problem with bedbugs after living in the apartment for three months. Within 24 hours, the property management company responded with the proper treatment. Can a tenant break a lease due to bedbugs even though the owner has properly treated the apartment by a bedbug expert?

The bedbug problem is a hot topic from Maine to Hawaii. Across the country, commercial and residential landlords, as well as business operators and homeowners, are frantically trying to find ways to effectively treat bedbugs. These critters, once rendered obsolete as a result of formerly used but now banned pesticides, have suddenly staged a comeback throughout all parts of the country where humans frequent.

What everyone must remember is that bedbugs, unlike their rodent cousins such as rats, roaches, and mites, do not discriminate based upon the cleanliness or lack thereof of a space. This means that bedbugs are just as likely to set up shop in the cleanest building or the dirtiest of tenements, and they are just as happy to hang out in movie theatres, airplane seats, and the Four Seasons as they are in your tenant’s bed. So, keeping the place tidy and free from filth does nothing to deter these blood suckers. All bedbugs need is some human flesh and they’re content.

In addition, bedbugs are extremely difficult to eradicate. Treat one room and they merely move to the next. Moreover, a successful extermination in February does not preclude complete re-infestation by March when some unsuspecting tenant comes home from a trip and has a suitcase loaded with the new gang.

All of this means that property owners must remain diligent in treating known infestations with a licensed pest control company that uses procedures recognized and accepted by the local health department. Recently, the San Francisco Department of Public Health strengthened its regulations to require landlords to promptly and effectively address bedbug infestations or face penalties for allowing a nuisance to persist.

However, there is currently no known way to permanently shield your building from this nationwide scourge. Therefore, if you diligently respond with proper treatment, a tenant is not legally excused from the obligations of an existing rental agreement. To the contrary, a prompt response fulfills your requirement under law, so the tenant is likewise compelled to perform under the lease. Tenants also should take precautions that will help to prevent introduction of these pests; for example, taking furniture off of the street or unloading a suitcase onto the carpeted floor instead of the laundry machine is high risk behavior.

Not surprisingly, there is a flurry of civil lawsuits against owners by tenants who seek to rescind their lease, desire monetary damages for lost personal property, or both. There is no published appellate case at the present time which specifically sets forth an owner’s civil liability for bedbug infestation, although California law provides that a building should be maintained free from vermin. Most practitioners believe that a timely response by a pest control company using generally accepted abatement methods diminishes, if not entirely eliminates, liability. Tenants need to understand that bedbugs, unlike other vermin, do not gravitate towards poorly maintained properties. Instead, they are indiscriminate and quite persistent. Rather than blame landlords for this crisis, all sides should cooperate with each other to prevent and control the increasingly all-too-common bedbug infestation.

DW

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