Although bed bugs are small and do not transmit diseases, they can cause giant problems. Their bites can cause severe allergic reactions and secondary skin infections and their presence can lead to significant economic consequences, as well as mental health problems for people residing in infested places.
Multi-unit apartment buildings provide particularly fertile environments for bedbugs, as new tenants may bring new bed bugs and infestations may easily spread to adjacent units. The California legislature has not taken the bed bug problems lying down. It recently imposed statutory duties regarding bed bugs on both landlords and tenants.
New Laws with Bite The legislature amended the California Civil Code to protect tenants who complain about bed bugs. New subsection 1942.5(a)(1), effective on January 1st, 2017, forbids landlords from raising rents, reducing services, or otherwise retaliating against a tenant who notifies or complains to the landlord about a suspected bed bug infestation. This amendment merely clarifies that longstanding laws protecting tenants from retaliation for making habitability complaints include complaints about bed bugs.
California Civil Code sections 1954.600 et seq., which also went into effect on January 1st, impose new duties on both landlords and tenants. Section 1954.602 provides that a vacant unit that a landlord knows to be currently infested with bed bugs may not be shown, rented, or leased. The statute does not impose a duty on landlords to inspect their properties for bed bugs. However, if the landlord has notice of suspected or actual infestation or if infestation is evident on visual inspection, the landlord is presumed to know about the infestation.
New Civil Code section 1954.603 provides that commencing on July 1, 2017, landlords must notify new tenants in at least 10-point font of the following: "General information about bed bug identification, behavior and biology, the importance of cooperation for prevention and treatment, and the importance of and for prompt written reporting of suspected infestations to the landlord." The statute provides the language necessary to comply with the notice requirements. Landlords are also required to notify new tenants about the "procedure to report suspected infestations to the landlord." The notifications required in this statute must be provided to all tenants by January 1, 2018.
Section 1954.604 requires tenants to cooperate with pest control operators who seek to enter their units to inspect units for bed bugs.
Finally, section 1954.605 directs landlords to furnish a copy of a pest control operator’s report to tenants whose units were inspected for bed bugs. The report must be provided to the tenants within two business days of receipt of the pest control operator’s findings. If the pest control operator finds bed bug infestations in common areas such as building hallways, shared laundry rooms and staircases, elevators, and designated garbage areas, notice must be provided to all tenants.
Wallet Infestation Bed bug infestations may inflict landlords with painful figurative bites. Even before the new California statutes took effect, lessors who ignored bed bug infestations were sued in individual actions and multi-party lawsuits for negligence, constructive eviction, breach of warranty of habitability, negligent infliction of emotional distress, breach of the covenant of quiet enjoyment, nuisance, and other causes of action. In some circumstances, landlords who lost these lawsuits had to pay the tenants’ attorney’s fees. For instance, in the recent case of Hjelm v. Prometheus Real Estate Group, Inc., 3 Cal.App.5th 1155 (Cal. Ct. App. 2016), the California Court of Appeal affirmed an award against a lessor of $326,475 in attorney’s fees on a $72,000 judgment.
Counsel Concerning Critters One obvious suggestion for avoiding lawsuits over bed bug infestations: Don’t let the bed bugs bite. Landlords might save money in the long-term by hiring pest control operators in the short-term to regularly inspect tenant units. These regular appointments may head off infestations. Furthermore, they may make the exterminator, rather than the landlord, liable in a tenant’s negligence action stemming from bed bug infestations.
Of course, landlords must follow the dictates of the law. They may not retaliate against tenants who complain about bed bugs, rent out infested property, or fail to disclose bed bug problems to affected tenants. Even if there is no infestation, landlords must provide new tenants notice about bed bugs beginning on July 1, 2017 and must do the same for all tenants beginning on January 1, 2018.
The new statute requiring tenants to provide necessary access to pest control operators should provide landlords with legal recourse against tenants who refuse to cooperate.
Bed bugs infestations can make landlords want to hide under their covers. But both landlords and tenants will sleep easier if they understand the laws concerning bed bugs.