Landlord Ordered to Pay Tenant $800K Over Bedbug Infestation

Faika Shaaban started itching the same day she moved into her new apartment in Annapolis, Maryland, in September 2011. Later that day, she noticed a rash. Soon, her body was covered with hundreds of painful bites, scabs, and welts, all from the bedbugs she didn't even know were all over her home.

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She asked her landlord, Cornelius J. Barrett, what could be causing the horrible rash, and he allegedly told her that he had no idea. It wasn't until months later, when she went to county housing officials to try to find a new place to live, that she learned that the bites were from bedbugs.

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Last week, a Maryland court ruled that Barrett had known about the bedbug infestation all along—even before he rented the apartment at 1000 West Street to Shaaban, now 69. After deliberating for just 45 minutes, the jury awarded Shaaban $800,000 in damages—more than twice the amount she had requested.

"The jury was asked to send a message," her lawyer, Daniel W. Whitney, told the Capital Gazette. "I think they have."

Bedbugs aren't simply a local problem. According to the National Pest Management Association (NPMA), 99.6 percent of pest-management professionals in the United States have dealt with bedbugs in the past year. That's up from just 25 percent back in 2000.

Bedbugs are tiny bloodsucking bugs that feed at night. They can hide in mattresses, box springs, furniture, clothing, and bedding, and can live inside the floors and walls of an infested home. Travelers may inadvertently pick them up in a hotel room and bring them home. Signs of a bedbug infestation include dark spots or rusty-looking stains on sheets and mattresses, tiny white eggs and shells, and flakes of bug skins. If moving into a furnished hotel or apartment, its important to inspect the mattress, especially along the seams, as well as upholstered furniture. However, they can survive on hard surfaces—like cracks in a headboard or even in a tool box—as well as on soft, fluffy ones.

"Controlling, let alone eradicating, this pest is extremely difficult," the NPMA says on its website. Bedbug traps exist, but are rarely enough to stop an infestation from getting worse. Bedbug-infested homes must be steam-cleaned and vacuumed repeatedly but, even then, bedbugs can cling to rough surfaces, and vacuuming with a regular household machine can actually spread the bugs from one area to another.

After she fled the bug-infested home, Whitney said, her landlord put all of her belongings, including displays and inventory for her small business, out on the curb. By the time she was able to come to retrieve her stuff, most of it had been stolen, spreading the infestation to wherever the goods ended up.

"She lost practically everything due to this," Whitney told the Baltimore Sun.

About $150,000 of the award was compensation for her lost and damaged belongings. The rest—$650,000—was in punitive damages, aimed at making other landlords think twice before foisting a problem apartment off on an unsuspecting occupant. It's one of the largest awards in history, more than three times the amount given to another Maryland woman who, in 2010, was awarded $250,000 after her son's new bunk beds were found to be filled with bedbugs.

According to city records, Barrett had not responded to a previous tenant's complaint about bedbugs. The Baltimore Sun points out that city records show that Barrett had been notified of both a bedbug infestation and a mouse infestation more than a month before he rented the apartment to Shaaban, but he did not disclose that to her when she signed the lease. The city records show that he was "taking steps to remedy" the bedbug and mouse problems.

But instead of calling in a professional pest-control service, as he had been ordered to do by city officials, Barrett opted to try a few home remedies instead, which made the problem worse.

"He defies the order of the city," Whitney told the Capital Gazette. "He decides to pick up some propane heaters and do it [himself], not knowing what he's doing. The bedbugs move away from the heat and that night she wakes up and they [bedbugs] have basically invaded her bedroom."

Calls to Barrett's home went unanswered. Shaaban is now living elsewhere in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, in an apartment that is bedbug-free; Whitney said that she does not want to be interviewed.

"She's still trying to process this," he told the Capital Gazette. "She's very thankful for having her day in court."

Also on Shine:

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The Super-Paranoid Person's Guide to Bed Bug Defense