Dear Counselor: You may have to bite back on bedbugs

Question: We just came back from a stay in a reputable chain hotel with bedbugs! We called to report it immediately, and they simply apologized. They did not offer to refund our payment for our three-night stay.
A friend of ours said that getting rid of the bedbugs may involve paying thousands of dollars to an exterminator. Do we have any claim for compensation from the hotel? — Itching in Davis

Answer: Unless the hotel changes its mind, the only recourse that you will have will be to go to court. You will need to bring in a blood-sucking lawyer to handle the blood-sucking bugs. Your claim against the hotel likely will be for negligence. A claim for negligence requires you to show that the defendant owed a duty of care to you, that the defendant breached that duty, and that the defendant’s breach caused you harm.
Hotels owe a duty of care to guests, which includes keeping the premises safe and free of pests. When the hotel fails to take reasonably prudent measures to eradicate pests and allows bedbugs to infest the rooms, the hotel faces exposure to a claim for damages.
Damages from bedbugs include property damage as well as pain and suffering. As you have already suggested, you will have to get the services of a good exterminator at a high cost, and you likely will have to discard infested property — preferably somewhere on the other side of the Yolo Causeway.
Although bedbugs do not transmit disease, they can cause serious itching and scarring. In more extreme cases, excessive scratching can cause skin infection, which may require a visit to the doctor.
The biggest hurdle you will face is proving causation. You will have to show that it was the reputable hotel chain that actually was responsible for the problem. If you stayed at any other hotels or even at a friend’s house, the hotel will counter that the other location was the cause. You will need some form of evidence to prove your case.
Pictures of dark spots (i.e., bug tracks) on the hotel room mattress could make your case. If the apology from the hotel is in writing, it might be read by the court as an admission that the bedbugs were present in your room.
The true value of your case to any lawyer will depend on the potential for punitive damages. If the hotel chain had notice of the bedbug problem and knowingly gave you the room for the night anyway, you could have a claim for punitive damages.
In one case from Chicago — which, according to Orkin Pest Control, is the city with the highest rate of bedbug infestation in the country (Sacramento is No. 45) — the defendant, a well-known motel chain, allowed guests to occupy rooms even though it knew the rooms were infested.
The trial court in that case found there was $10,000 in compensatory damages for the two individual plaintiffs, but it held that $186,000 in punitive damages was appropriate.
Although your question pertains to hotels and guests, landlords and tenants also have a responsibility when it comes to bedbug infestation. Tenants are legally responsible for notifying a landlord or manager immediately of bedbugs, and landlords are responsible for maintaining the property free of pests.
The problem is getting more attention from lawyers as a Maryland woman recently obtained a judgment of $800,000 against a landlord who ignored her numerous requests to handle the problem.
Your proposal to the hotel to settle this matter seems quite reasonable. If you have proof that the bedbugs were from it and haven’t submitted the evidence to hotel management already, you should do so along with a renewed request. The hotel might change its position. If it still refuses, you will have bite back by taking the matter to court.



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