Legal Action: What to Do When Unit Owners Fail to Eliminate Bed Bugs?

January 1, 2012
Condo Management Magazine

Legal Fair Warning:
by Frank A. Flynn, ESQ.

For the last 10 years or so, bed bugs have reemerged in this country to strike fear in the hearts of community managers everywhere. So, as a community manager, if you learn that a condominium unit owner has bed bugs, what are you to do? If a unit owner fails to swiftly address a bed bug problem in their unit, is there any way to force that unit owner to act and prevent the spread of this nefarious parasite? While it may not be easy, there are steps a community manager can take to address a bed bug infestation in a condominium unit; but community managers need to be aggressive and vigilant in their efforts to halt the potential spread of bedbugs.

Bed bugs became fairly scarce in the United States until late twentieth century, as now banned (and proven dangerous) chemicals like DDT had kept bed bugs from becoming a serious problem. However, after DDT was banned, and as a result of increased international travel, bed bugs began to gain a foothold once again in the United States. Indeed, in the last decade, bed bug infestations have become serious problems in condominium, multi-family housing developments, in cities, in hotels and on college campuses. Bed bugs usually feed at night while their victims are asleep. Bites from bed bugs are usually painless when they occur and involve sucking a few drops of blood from their victims. They typically lie in wait near the areas where their victims sleep, such as a bed or a couch.

Legally, unit owners are generally responsible for what occurs within the borders of their condominium units and a condominium association is generally responsible for what occurs in the common areas of a development and exterior of a condominium development. Therefore, if a unit owner has bed bugs in their unit, the unit owner will likely bear the responsibility and cost of extermination. If bed bugs are found in a common area of a condominium development, a condominium association will usually be responsible for extermination in the common area.

If a unit owner experiences bed bugs in their unit, the first step of a community manager should be to swiftly urge the unit owner to take immediate and aggressive action to exterminate. Extermination will typically involve removal of all clothing, bedding and curtains in a unit and washing them and drying them at high heat to kill bed bugs, coupled with professional extermination. Oftentimes, this process needs to be repeated several times in order to eliminate bed bugs in a unit. Sometimes, expensive “heat treatments” can also be employed, where professional exterminators will heat the interior of a unit to an oppressive 140 degrees or higher to kill stubborn bed bugs.

However, if a unit owner is slow in acting or refuses to address an infestation of bed bugs in their unit, what is a community manager to do to prevent bed bugs from spreading into common areas and throughout a development? Community managers may be able to file a lawsuit seeking injunctive relief to force a unit owner to exterminate in order to prevent bed bugs from spreading. Depending on the rules and regulations in place at a condominium development, community managers may even be able to recover the legal fees and costs associated with bringing such a lawsuit against a unit owner.

Clearly, it would be preferable for unit owners and community managers to work together to address a bed bug infestation; but if a unit owner fails to act swiftly, aggressive legal action may be necessary to control, contain and eliminate a bed bug problem before it spreads. If cooperation with a unit owner is not working, don’t hesitate to contact an experienced condominium attorney!

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