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Plagued by bedbugs, hotel guests bite back.

Forget monsters in the closet. In mattresses, under carpet and floorboards, and behind pictures and wallpaper lurk the bedbugs of nursery-rhyme fame. The bloodsucking pests, which resemble apple seeds and are attracted by human body heat, practically disappeared in the 1950s, but they are staging a comeback in homes and at hotels across the country.

Pest-control service Orkin, Inc., has found bedbugs in 35 states and says it is treating five times more infestations than it did two years ago. "Once inside your home or hotel, bedbugs can spread rapidly from room to room.... They are difficult to control," the company says on its Web site.

Unwary hotel guests who wake covered in bites from the nocturnal menace are beginning to file suits against the hotels, alleging negligence, fraud, and misconduct. Suits pending in Maryland and New York seek both compensatory and punitive damages, and the Seventh Circuit upheld a large punitive damages award last year.

"These seem like good cases for punitives," said attorney Rick Bagolie of Jersey City, New Jersey, who was exploring a complaint that came to his office. "Because the bites clear up, there's an issue of permanency, so you have to show a pattern--if the hotel knew about it, if it had prior notice, or if it was a one-time occurrence. Otherwise, it could be difficult to get punitive damages."

Bedbugs are not disease-carrying pests, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but their bites leave itchy, red welts, and some people may suffer allergic reactions to the bugs' saliva. They can withstand extreme temperatures and live for about a year without feeding. They like to travel on clothing, luggage, and bedding--and even inside vacuum cleaners.

The National Pest Management Association attributes the bedbug resurgence to global travel and the bugs' hitchhiking ability. It says infestations "can be difficult to detect due to the elusive, nocturnal, and transient nature of the pest." Infestations require professional chemical treatment, often more than once.

In February a couple and their two children who stayed at a Holiday Inn in Ocean City, Maryland, sued the hotel's owner for renting them two rooms infested with bedbugs in August 2003. (Dugan v. Harrison Group Ltd., No. 0401906 (Pa., Montgomery County Ct. C.P. filed Feb. 6, 2004).)

When James and Mary Ann Dugan and their children woke, they were covered in bites and found "a large amount of insects or bugs" between one bed's sheet and mattress cover. The Dugans checked out--and the bugs went with them.

At home, they took the children to a dermatologist to treat bites on their faces and arms. They had to hire an exterminator, and the infestation caused them to throw out clothing, bedding, and furniture; kept them from using their car (which also needed treatment) for a week; and forced them to leave their home for six weeks, according to their lawsuit.

The Dugans seek compensatory and punitive damages for the cost of treating the bug bites, exterminating their house and car, and getting medical monitoring (their suit claims that bedbugs can transmit HIV, hepatitis, and other blood-borne illnesses).

A luxury hotel in New York City has also been plagued with the pests. When a businessman from Mexico and his son stayed at the Helmsley Park Lane Hotel in June 2003, they suffered "numerous bedbug bites to their torsos, arms, and necks," according to their lawsuit. (Ventura v. Helmsley Park Lane Hotel, No. 121455/2003 (N.Y., N.Y. County Sup. Ct. filed Dec. 15, 2003).)

After Arrangoiz and Requejo Ventura stayed the night and suffered some bites, the hotel moved them to another room because the first one "needed to be renovated," the complaint says. They left the next day with more bites and carried the bugs home with them. Both sought medical care for the bites. The suit claims "physical pain, mental anguish, emotional distress, and lost earnings" and seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages from the hotel.

At least one suit has reached the appellate level. After being bitten by bedbugs in a downtown Chicago Motel 6, a brother and sister sued the chain's owner for "willful and wanton conduct." The Seventh Circuit upheld a jury's award of compensatory and punitive damages, finding that the management did little or nothing to address the problem, that there wars sufficient evidence to find that the defendant had acted willfully and wantonly (which Illinois law requires before awarding punitive damages), and that the defendant might be guilty of fraud and battery. (Mathias v. Accor Econ. Lodging, Inc., 347 F.3d 672 (7th Cir. 2003).)

In 1998, the motel's extermination service recommended spraying every room, but management instructed it to treat only individual rooms. In early 2000, a hotel manager asked the district manager to close the motel for building-wide extermination because guests were being bitten and seeking refunds, butt the request was refused. "The infestation continued and began to reach farcical proportions," Judge Richard Posner wrote for the court.

By November 9000, when the plaintiffs stayed there, the motel policy was to label certain rooms not to be rented until they were sprayed for the pests. But Burl and Desiree Mathias were given a room marked "do not rent until treated," as were several other guests that night, when all but one of 191 rooms were occupied.

Posner scoffed at the defendant's claim of simple negligence, writing that it "has no possible merit, as the evidence of gross negligence, indeed of recklessness in the strong sense of an unjustifiable failure to avoid a known risk ... was amply shown."

The motel couldn't do business if it alerted guests that they might receive "painful and unsightly" bites from bedbugs, he said.

"Its failure either to warn guests or to take effective measures to eliminate the bedbugs amounted to fraud and probably to battery as well," Posner wrote. "There was, in short, sufficient evidence of 'willful and wanton conduct' within the meaning that the Illinois courts assign to the term to permit an award of punitive damages in this case."
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Author:Porter, Rebecca
Date:May 1, 2004
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