What happens when bedbugs move-in?

bb2I was not planning on discussing bedbugs this week, however, in the wake of Orkin’s recent report that Chicago has the worst bedbug problem in the nation, the City Council of Chicago has proposed a new ordinance that would impose a responsibility on Chicago landlords to address bedbug problems and the law is getting quite a bit of press.  We’ve been discussing tenant move-in and move-out this week, so let’s talk just a bit about when bedbugs move-in and what, if anything, landlords have to do to move them out.  The Chicago Tribune reported that alderman had a hearing this past Tuesday at a joint meeting of the City Council Health and Housing committees on comprehensive new proposed ordinance to deal with these increasingly common pests.

Right now, there is not all that much hard law dealing with bedbugs in Chicago or in Illinois and no portion of the Chicago ordinance specifically deals with bedbugs.  Instead, we look to parts of the law dealing generally with insects.  Section 5-12-070 of the CRLTO that requires landlords to maintain their rental units in compliance with the City of Chicago Building Code.  Section 5-12-110 of the CRLTO specifies that a landlord’s failure to exterminate insects, rodents, or other pests is considered material noncompliance with the building code.

Landlords are not thought to be responsible for the cost of extermination if the tenant is negligent in introducing the bedbugs to the rental property.  Unfortunately, it is difficult for landlords to actually prove that a tenant is responsible for a bedbug invasion.

Section 13-196-630(c) of the City of Chicago Building Code is the one place where the law clearly places a burden on a landlord.  The law indicates that every landlord must…“exterminate any insects, rodents or other pests in any family unit, if infestation is caused by the failure of the owner or operator to maintain the dwelling in a ratproof or reasonable insect-proof condition, and he must exterminate such pests in any family unit in the dwelling, regardless of the cause of infestation, if infestation exists in two or more of the family units in the dwelling or in the shared or public parts of any dwelling containing two or more family units…”  So, once a bedbug infestation spreads to more than one unit, a landlord must certainly act.

It is important to note that the code does not currently specify any particular manner of bedbug treatment.  There is not even a requirement in the law that a landlord hire a professional exterminator.

Landlords with bedbug problems need to be wary.  Bedbug litigation is a relatively new area of law and is still just developing.  Those landlords who know that they have a bedbug issue and are willfully negligent in failing to exterminate bedbugs can be liable in a tort action for actual and punitive damages.  In a 2003 case in the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals known as Mathias v. Accor Econ. Lodging, the court upheld an award for compensatory and punitive damages for hotel guests who sued a motel chain claiming willful and wanton conduct under Illinois premises liability when hotel guests were attacked by bedbugs.

On a statewide level, Illinois passed a law in 2010 creating a subcommittee to look into the bedbug problem and to suggest solutions but other than producing a report, the state has not done all that much to tackle the issue.  There are two laws, one dealing with bedding and the other dealing with railroads that address bedbugs.  Chicago has lagged behind other big cities like New York, San Francisco, Detroit, and Boston in enacting legislation to deal with the bedbug problem.

Now, according to the text of the proposed ordinance, the city will add a new section to the CRLTO that will require landlords to provide an informational brochure about bedbugs to tenants or prospective tenants upon providing new and renewal leases.  (Yes, ANOTHER disclosure!)  In addition, the proposed ordinance will add some new requirements.  In a rental unit found to have or suspected to have bedbugs, the landlord will be required to hire a professional pest control service to eliminate the bedbug infestation regardless of the number of treatments needed.  The law will also require that landlords hire professional exterminators and maintain records documenting treatment efforts.  For buildings containing multiple rental units, landlord will also have to inspect and possibly treat the units neighboring on either side of an infested unit and the units directly above and below the infested unit.  Landlords will also have an obligation to provide notification of treatment to tenants.

Under the proposed law, tenants don’t get a free pass either.  They will have an obligation to notify the landlord of bedbug infestation.  They will also be required to cooperate with the landlord in the extermination of the bedbugs.  Believe it or not, many tenants do not cooperate with a landlord’s attempts to exterminate.  The proposed ordinance will require that tenants cannot interfere with inspection or treatments, that tenants must grant reasonable access to the rental unit for inspection and treatment, and that tenants must follow the professional exterminator’s instructions related to treatment, and finally, that tenants must dispose of personal property that cannot be properly treated.

If passed, landlords and tenants will need to comply or face stiff penalties.  For any violation, the ordinance proposes a fine between $300 to $1000 for each offense and the law indicates that each day constitutes a separate and distinct offense to which a separate fine shall apply.

It seems likely that the city will pass some sort of bedbug ordinance.  Whether it will be the law in its current proposed form or some modified form is unknown.  What is certain is that landlords will need to step up efforts to eradicate bedbugs and Chicago’s exterminators are likely to see a big spike in business!

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