What if Another Tenant in My Building Has Bed Bugs?

Depending on factors like the city where you live and type of building you live in, your landlord may be legally required to keep your apartment free of bed bugs and other insect infestations.  But what happens if the infestation isn’t in your apartment?  If your neighbor has bed bugs, is your landlord responsible?  Is the affected tenant required to take any action?  Most importantly, is there anything you can do before the bugs spread to your unit?  Our apartment bed bug infestation attorneys explain some of the legal considerations tenants of multi-unit buildings should be aware of.

How to Tell if Another Unit in Your Building is Infested

Bed bugs are notorious for their ability to spread rapidly.  Thanks to the combination of short breeding cycles, large broods of eggs, and ever-increasing resistance against some of the most common types of insecticides and pest control products, it takes only a few months (and sometimes only a few weeks) for small populations to explode into full-blown infestations.  While bed bugs are cause for concern in any living environment, these factors make them a particularly serious problem in crowded quarters — for example, urban apartment buildings.

But how will you know if your neighbor has bed bugs in the first place?  After all, you certainly can’t confirm your suspicions by sneaking into his or her unit.  However, bed bugs in high concentrations are known to emit a peculiar odor typically described as being sweet, musty, or similar to coriander, which you may be able to detect in the building’s hallways.  The sudden appearance of bed bugs on your laundry, in your bed, or on your indoor pet is another clear indication that a population already exists somewhere inside the building.

Keep in mind that bed bugs are speedy travelers capable of covering distances of up to three feet per minute, so if they’ve infested your neighbor’s apartment, it’s only a matter of time before they spread to your unit as well.  Walls, ceilings, light switches and pipes are all pathways that bed bugs use to travel to seek out human blood.

But what, if anything, can you get the building’s landlord to do about it?  Do renters have any legal recourse when it comes to apartment units they don’t actually pay for?  Or are you simply out of luck until the affected tenant him- or herself complains?

landlord tenant bed bug liability

How Property Code Affects Tenant-Landlord Bed Bug Liability

The answer depends partially on the building code in the community where you live. However, while each town and city is governed in part by its own municipal code, these local codes are sometimes superseded by the IPMC, or International Property Maintenance Code.  The IPMC belongs to a family of national codes, such as the International Plumbing Code and the International Private Sewage Disposal Code, which are administered by the International Code Council (ICC).  These codes are collectively referred to as “I-Codes.”

As we discussed in our previous blog post about landlord responsibility for bed bugs, some of the key IPMC factors which impact pest control liability are the total number of units in the building, and the type of dwelling it is.  For example, one portion of the code specifies that renters in multi-unit buildings are responsible for bed bug extermination in cases where only the renter’s unit has bed bugs.

So what does this mean for you as a tenant?  In some jurisdictions, any infestation in a rental unit is the property owner and/or operator’s responsibility.  In other jurisdictions, as long as your neighbor’s unit is the only one being affected, he or she assumes financial responsibility for addressing the infestation.  However, if the infestation spreads to other units in the building — yours, for example — then responsibility for extermination measures can potentially shift to the landlord.  Of course, each situation is different, and there are other factors that can become important when determining responsibility for treating an infestation.

If your landlord is considered responsible for handling extermination, he or she should always hire a licensed pest control company.  In most jurisdictions, only licensed professional exterminators can safely (and legally) apply pesticides and other pest control treatments, including heat treatment.  Unfortunately, landlords often try to cut corners by relying on cheap and ineffective DIY treatments — typically foggers or consumer-grade bug spray.  Some landlords even attempt to perform heat treatment themselves, all to the extreme detriment of their tenants.  If you sustain bite-related injuries because your landlord refuses to pay for professional extermination measures, you may be able to recover financial compensation by filing a personal injury claim.

In addition to the property code requirements supplied by the IPMC, many states have adopted their own bed bug laws which can also affect landlords and/or tenants.

Arkansas, for example, prohibits tenants from “knowingly mov[ing] materials into a dwelling unit that are infested with bedbugs.” This means your neighbor cannot intentionally bring his or her infested mattress, clothing, etc. into the building.

To provide another example, New Hampshire’s laws provide the following: “No tenant shall willfully refuse the landlord access to the premises to… evaluate whether bedbugs are present after the landlord has received notice that bed bugs are present in a dwelling unit adjacent to the premises or a dwelling unit that is directly above or below the premises.” In other words, your neighbor cannot prevent the landlord from conducting an inspection, provided appropriate notice has been given.

If you’re concerned that your landlord or other tenants in your building are violating state laws or municipal health code, the bed bug litigation attorneys of Whitney, LLP may be able to help.  Recovery can include fees you have wrongfully paid, and attorneys’ fees.  To start learning some of your options in a free and private legal consultation, call our law offices today at (410) 583-8000.