When can a hotel or landlord be sued for bedbugs?

California law allows people to file a premises liability lawsuit if they are bitten by bedbugs while renting property or staying in a hotel.  Damages renters and hotel guests can sue for include:

To recover damages for bedbug bites, a renter or hotel guest will usually need to prove that:

  • The owner or operator of the property knew there was a bedbug infestation, or
  • The owner or operator failed to take reasonable steps to prevent an infestation.

A renter may also be able to get a court to award an injunction forcing a landlord to exterminate bedbugs.1

To help you better understand claims against landlords and hotel owners for bedbug injuries, our California personal injury lawyers discuss the following, below:

child's legs covered in insect bites

1. When can a tenant or hotel guest sue for bedbug injuries?

In California, landlords and hotels are generally liable for bedbug injuries or infestations when:

  • The owner or operator of the property knew there was a bedbug infestation, and
  • The owner or operator failed to take reasonable steps to eradicate or prevent the infestation.

Claims against landlords and hotel owner/operators are most often based on one or more of the following theories:

Let's take a closer look at each of these legal bases for bedbug liability in California.

1.1. Negligence

A landlord or hotel's negligence for bedbug injuries occurs when:

  1. The property owner owed the plaintiff a duty of care; 
  2. The property owner either (a) did something that a reasonably careful person WOULD NOT do in the same situation or (b) failed to do something that a reasonably careful person WOULD do in the same situation;
  3. The property owner's actions or inaction was a substantial factor in causing the plaintiff's harm; and
  4. The harm caused was foreseeable – meaning it was known about or could be guessed before it happened.2

The duty of care owed by landlords

Landlords must use reasonable care to protect people who come onto their property.

Reasonable care includes:

  • Making sure property is safe when a renter or guest moves in, and
  • Fixing any hazards the landlord learns about later.3

Therefore, under California law, a landlord may be found negligent for:

  • Renting or leasing a property with a known bedbug infestation, or
  • Failing to take reasonable steps to prevent such an infestation.
 Example: In 2017, a Los Angeles jury awarded $3.5 million to 16 current and former tenants of the Park La Brea apartment complex. The jury found that the landlord knew the building was infested with bedbugs but failed to warn new tenants.

The plaintiffs were awarded between $44,000 and $580,000 each for damages such as sleeplessness, anxiety and humiliation at work.4  

1.2. Breach of the warranty of habitability

Property owners in California have a general obligation to maintain their properties in a “habitable” condition.5

“Habitable” means suitable and fit for a person to live in. A habitable property is free of defects that endanger the health and safety of occupants.6

The California Civil Code also imposes certain specific obligations on landlords. These include keeping areas under the landlord's control clean, sanitary, and free from accumulations of:

  • debris,
  • filth,
  • rubbish,
  • garbage,
  • rodents, or
  • vermin.7

Elements of a claim for breach of warranty of habitability

To recover damages for breach of the warranty of habitability, a tenant must show that:

  • A defective condition affected the premises' habitability;
  • The tenant gave notice to the landlord within a reasonable time after discovering the condition;
  • The landlord was given a reasonable time to correct the deficiency; and
  • As a result of the condition, the tenant suffered damages.8
 Example: In 2017, a tenant in the Pacoima neighborhood of Los Angeles won a $465,600 jury verdict against his landlord.  The jury found that the landlord had ignored the tenant's complaints, even after a Los Angeles County Department of Environmental Health inspector cited the building for a bedbug infestation.9

1.3. Breach of contract

Breach of contract is often used by commercial tenants in bedbug cases in California.

This is because damages for breach of contract can sometimes include “consequential damages,” such as lost business revenue.10

Residential tenants may also claim breach of a lease contract to claim damages caused by bedbugs.

But it is usually not necessary since the California Civil Code imposes a duty on landlords to make premises habitable.

The elements of a breach of contract claim

To establish a breach of contract claim in California against a landlord, a plaintiff must show:

  • The existence of a contract such as a lease agreement;
  • That the tenant “performed” his/her duties under the contract, e.g., paid rent;
  • That the landlord breached the contract; and
  • The breach caused damages to the tenant – for instance, that he/she had to move out of the premises, hire an exterminator, buy new bedding, etc.11

Does the contract have to be in writing?

A lease agreement does not need to be in writing in order for a tenant to sue for breach.

But the tenant must be able to prove that there was a term in the contract that was breached. This is far easier to do with a written contract.

Other ways of proving a contract include the testimony of the tenant and other witnesses, if any.

1.4. Private nuisance

To establish a private nuisance claim against a landlord in California, a tenant must show that:

  • The landlord's actions (or inaction) interfered with the tenant's use and enjoyment of his property;
  • The interference caused the tenant to suffer “substantial actual damages;” and
  • The interference was “unreasonable” in terms of its nature, duration, or amount.12
Example:  In 2015, Extended Stay America agreed to pay $8,500 to a woman and her daughter. The plaintiffs claimed that during a nine-day stay at the company's hotel in Ontario, California they were repeatedly bitten by bedbugs and head lice. Private nuisance was just one of the theories the plaintiffs raised to support their claim for damages.13

1.5.  Intentional infliction of emotional distress

In rare cases, a bedbug infestation may allow a tenant to sue for intentional infliction of emotional distress in California.

The main advantage of suing on this basis is to recover punitive damages. In California, punitive damages can normally not be recovered for ordinary negligence.14

The elements of an emotional distress claim

To recover for intentional infliction of emotional distress, the plaintiff must show that:

  • The defendant's conduct was outrageous;
  • The conduct was caused by the defendant's recklessness or was intended to cause emotional distress; and
  • As a result of the defendant's conduct, the plaintiff suffered severe emotional distress.15

Proving recklessness may be difficult to do in an infestation case, but it is not impossible.

Example: In 2017, a jury awarded $546,500 to a family bitten by bedbugs during their stay at a hotel in Rancho Cucamonga.16 The suit claimed that the hotel had a history of bedbug problems but failed to take adequate steps to remedy them. The verdict included a $50,000 punitive damages award for intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Bedbug on a piece of corrugated cardboard
Bedbugs – also known as Cimex hemipterus – like to hide in soft materials such as fabric and cardboard.

3. What damages can a tenant or hotel guest recover for bedbug bites in California?

Damages for bedbug bites in California can include:

  • Medical bills,
  • Counseling bills,
  • Pain and suffering,
  • Emotional distress / anxiety,
  • Property damage, and
  • The costs of eradicating an infestation.

In appropriate cases, a tenant may also be entitled to an award of punitive damages. Punitive damages exist to punish especially blameworthy defendants and serve as a negative example to others.17

In bedbug cases, punitive or exemplary damages are typically awarded only when:

  • The landlord has actual notice of an infestation, and
  • The landlord takes no action to warn tenants or to eradicate the infestation.18

4. What if I waived the right to sue for bedbugs?

Some landlords include a “bedbug waiver” in their lease agreements.  This is a clause saying that:

  1. The landlord is not responsible for bedbugs, and
  2. The tenant waives any right to recover damages on this basis.

But under California law, a tenant cannot be required to waive the landlord's duty of habitability.  So any purported “bedbug waiver” in a lease or rental agreement is void and cannot be enforced.19

5. Can I sue Airbnb or other short-term rental sites for bedbugs?

People who stay in short-term rental properties (such as through Airbnb) can sue the homeowner for bedbug bites. But they will have a hard time recovering damages from the rental website.

Standard language in the contracts between short-term rental companies and property owners often excludes damages for bedbugs.

Although some rental sites -- including Airbnb -- offer “protection” policies to “hosts,” these policies do not cover damages from insects.20 Nor does Airbnb have a policy requiring a host to refund money in this situation.21

Doesn't the host's homeowner's insurance cover bedbug damages?

Generally not. Most homeowners' insurance policies do not cover “business activities” operated out of a home.

So while people who book a property through Airbnb can sue the homeowner directly, it will usually not be backed up by an insurer. This can make it difficult to recover damages, especially for someone from out of state.

6. Can I sue if a guest or tenant brought bedbugs onto my property?

Property owners in California may be able to sue if a renter is responsible for a bedbug infestation. But because bedbug infestations often go undetected, proving that a tenant was responsible can be very challenging.22

Remember – proving negligence involves showing four things:

  1. That the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care;
  2. That the defendant was negligent;
  3. That the defendant's negligence was a substantial factor in causing the plaintiff harm (“causation”); and
  4. That a result the defendant suffered damages.23

A tenant's duty of care to a landlord

Tenants in California have a legal duty to keep premises they rent clean and sanitary.24 A breach of this duty is considered negligence under California's “negligence per se” law.

But even if the tenant breaches this duty, it does not prove that the tenant was responsible for the bedbugs.

As discussed above, bedbug infestations can easily go undetected. And the plaintiff bears the burden of establishing “causation” by a preponderance of the evidence.

“Preponderance of the evidence” means it is “more likely than not” that the defendant was responsible for the damage. If the jury cannot decide, it must find in favor of the defendant.25

7. How does someone know if he/she has been bitten by bedbugs?

Bedbugs are parasitic insects that feed on the blood of humans. Fortunately, they are not known to transmit diseases.26

Adult bedbugs are brown, flat, oval-shaped and the size of an apple seed. After feeding on blood, bedbugs swell and turn reddish in color. Bedbugs hide when they are not feeding.

Some humans show no reaction to being bitten by bedbugs other than two small dots where the bedbugs have punctured their skin. Those who are more sensitive may develop reddish bumps or lesions on their skin within 12 hours of being bitten.27

The bumps/lesions tend to swell and become itchy within 24 to 48 hours. If scratched, they can become infected. In rare instances, people have experienced systemic allergic reactions to bedbug bites. Allergic reactions can include asthma, generalized hives, and anaphylactic shock.28

A study conducted by scientists in Montreal also found a link between bed bug infestation and symptoms of sleep disturbances and anxiety.29

bedbugs on the back of a bed's headboard
Bedbugs often hide behind headboards and in the seams of mattresses and box springs.

8. How to check for bed bugs

It is unlikely that someone will catch a bedbug in the act of biting, and not just because they normally attack while people are sleeping. When they bite, bedbugs inject a substance that prevents people from feeling the bite.30

Someone who suspects that bedbugs may be present should look for the following signs:

  • Rusty or reddish stains on bed sheets or mattresses.
  • Small, dark spots that “bleed” like a marker on fabric would.
  • Eggs and eggshells.
  • Pale yellow skins shed by immature bedbugs as they grow larger.
  • Live bed bugs.31

Experts recommend removing all bedding and the dust cover on the bottom of the box spring to check for bedbugs and signs of their excrement. They also advise checking the area around the bed, including books and electrical outlets.

9. What should I do if I have been bitten by a bed bug while on away from home?

Renters and hotel guests who have been bitten by bedbugs should take the following steps in order to preserve their right to make a claim:

  1. Take detailed pictures of the body part that has been bitten.
  2. Check the bedding, bed, and areas around the bed for the signs of bedbugs and take photos of any signs found.
  3. Check clothing and luggage and take photos of any bugs found.
  4. Notify the local health department.

Call us for help…

female receptionist with headset

If you or someone you know has suffered due to bedbugs in your hotel or apartment building, we invite you to contact us for a free consultation.

Call us at 855-LawFirm or complete the form on this page to discuss your case with an experienced California personal injury lawyer.

Legal References:

  1. See, for example, Galindo v. Civic Center Hotel, A144594 (Cal. Ct. App. 2016). In this case the court ordered a San Francisco residential hotel to hire a licensed pest control operator to exterminate mice, cockroaches, and bedbugs.
  2. Civil Code section 1714(a): “Everyone is responsible, not only for the result of his or her willful acts, but also for an injury occasioned to another by his or her want of ordinary care or skill in the management of his or her property or person, except so far as the latter has, willfully or by want of ordinary care, brought the injury upon himself or herself…” See also California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) 400. Negligence—Essential Factual Elements.
  3. Stone v. Center Trust Retail Properties, Inc., 163 Cal. App. 4th 608 (2008).
  4. Los Angeles Times, December 16, 2017, Park La Brea apartments loses $3.5-million bedbug lawsuit, lawyer says.
  5. Green v. Superior Court, 10 Cal.3d 616 (1974).
  6. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/habitable
  7. Cal. Civ. Code § 1941.1.
  8. Erlach v. Sierra Asset Servicing LLC, 226 Cal.App.4th 1281, 173 Cal. Rptr. 3d 159 (2014).
  9. Johnny Reynolds et al. v. 12300-12301 Osborne Place.
  10. See, e.g., Brandon & Tibbs v. George Kevorkian Accountancy Corp. (1990) 226 Cal.App.3d 442
  11. Oasis West Realty LLC v. Goldman, 51 Cal.4th 811 (2011).
  12. Civil Code 3479: “Anything which is injurious to health, including, but not limited to, the illegal sale of controlled substances, or is indecent or offensive to the senses, or an obstruction to the free use of property, so as to interfere with the comfortable enjoyment of life or property, or unlawfully obstructs the free passage or use, in the customary manner, of any navigable lake, or river, bay, stream, canal, or basin, or any public park, square, street, or highway, is a nuisance.” See also CACI 2021. Private Nuisance—Essential Factual Elements.
  13. 49 Trial Digests 18th 22, 2015 WL 8483309
  14. Civil Code 3294.
  15. CACI 1600. Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress—Essential Factual Elements.
  16. McKindra v. Heritage Inn of Rancho Cucamonga, San Bernardino Superior Court / CIVDS1502829 (2017).
  17. Civil Code 3294, endnote 14.
  18. See, for example, endnote 4.
  19. California Civil Code 1953.
  20. Airbnb host guarantee.
  21. Airbnb tips blogs – beware of the bedbugs!
  22. See e.g., Bedbug Central, How Do I Know I Have Bed Bugs?
  23. See endnote 2.
  24. Civil Code 1941.2(a)(1).
  25. CACI 200. Obligation to Prove—More Likely True Than Not True.
  26. Mayo Clinic, bedbugs symptoms and causes.
  27. The Bed Bugs Handbook.
  28. Same.
  29. Susser,  Perron, Fournier, Jacques, Denis, Tessier and Roberge, Mental health effects from urban bed bug infestation (Cimex lectularius L.): a cross-sectional study.
  30. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Bed Bugs FAQ.
  31. Same.

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