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Can a landlord sue a tenant for bringing bedbugs into a rental unit?
It may surprise you that a landlord can sue a tenant who brings bedbugs onto the landlord’s property in California. This applies to both residential and commercial tenants.
Under California law, tenants have a legal duty to keep the premises they rent clean and sanitary. Breaching this duty is considered negligence.
But even if the tenant breaches this duty, it does not prove that the tenant was responsible for the bedbugs. Bedbug infestations often go undetected. This can make it hard to prove when and how the bedbugs got there.
The elements of a landlord’s claim for bedbugs
In order to win a bedbug lawsuit against a tenant who causes a bedbug infestation, the landlord must prove:
1. That the defendant was the landlord’s tenant;
2. That the defendant negligently brought bedbugs onto property owned or controlled by the landlord;
3. That the defendant’s negligence was a substantial factor in causing the plaintiff harm (“causation”); and
4. That, as a result, the defendant suffered damages.
How does a landlord prove a tenant was negligent?
Proving causation is the hardest part of a bedbug lawsuit in California. But the landlord only needs to convince a jury (or judge) by a “preponderance of the evidence.” This legal standard means that it was “more likely than not” that the tenant caused the infestation.
Ways the landlord might be able to show this include introducing evidence that:
The unit was clean and free of bedbugs when it was rented out.
This might be shown with photos and/or an inspection report from a reputable extermination company.
The tenant did not keep the premises in a clean and sanitary condition.
Again, photos might be helpful as might prior written communications about unsanitary conditions from:
The landlord to the tenant, or
Other tenants to the landlord.
An extermination company’s report after an infestation.
A professional bedbug exterminator might be able to shed some light on where an infestation came from.
While not conclusive, when added to other evidence it might show that the tenant did not use reasonable care in preventing bedbugs.
How can landlords prevent bedbugs on their rental property?
The best prevention against bedbugs is to keep the property clean and sanitary. But even this is not foolproof. Bed bugs can be brought onto property in luggage, on new furniture, and even on someone’s clothing.
Landlords (especially those in highly bedbug-infested areas such as Los Angeles) can protect themselves by taking the following steps:
Educate tenants in writing about bed bugs, as required by California’s new bed bug disclosure requirements for landlords (California Civil Code 1954.603);
Although not legally required unless an infestation is suspected, have a vacant unit inspected for bed bugs before renting it out (and get a written report that the unit is clean);
Do not rent out a unit with a bed bug infestation (which would violate California’s bed bug laws);
Respond promptly to any tenant complaints about bed bugs; and
Notify a tenant within two business days of any finding of bed bugs by a pest control company (required by California law). For confirmed infestations in common areas, all tenants must be given notice.
About the Author
A former Los Angeles prosecutor, attorney Neil Shouse graduated with honors from UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School (and completed additional graduate studies at MIT). He has been featured on CNN, Good Morning America, Dr Phil, The Today Show and Court TV. Mr Shouse has been recognized by the National Trial Lawyers as one of the Top 100 Criminal and Top 100 Civil Attorneys.