Does my landlord have to pay for my stuff that is damaged by bed bugs?

Rachel e-mailed in this question:

"We have just discovered that we have bedbugs. Do you think we should throw out our couch? My other concern is regarding the legal/financial responsibility of our landlord. He is willing to pay for the exterminator to come in, but doesn't want to help with the enormous laundry bill we will now have to pay. I read somewhere that landlords can be responsible for extermination, laundry services, buying new mattresses and bed frames, buying new couches and rugs. I suppose the new bed and couch is extreme, however I honestly feel he should be paying for our laundry to be done. He keeps insisting that he doesn't know how the bugs got there and that it could be our fault and that we need to do our part. I am so annoyed at this point I have made arrangements for us to live elsewhere in the mean time. I am hoping never to go back, but we shall see...I'm not exactly eager to fork over another months rent on the first of July while we are still dealing with the situation. I am also wondering what our rights are as tenants in this. While I am extremely upset about this, I also don't want to annoy the landlord too much or he may not give our security deposit back! Any help you can give us would be greatly appreciated!

Thanks,

Rachel"

   

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First of all as a disclaimer, I am not your lawyer and the answer to this question is too complicated to be 100% certain on because state laws differ. You should consult a local lawyer, because that's the only way to be sure you've got the right answer for your area.

You are probably going to have a lot of trouble recovering money from your landlord for actual damage to your stuff. There are many places (including bed bug hotspots like New York City) where in most cases a landlord has an obligation to call in the exterminator and get rid of the infestation - and also to prevent things from being reinfested.

The problem for getting money for laundry bills, new furniture, etc. is that most laws or codes dealing with bed bugs only talk about the responsibility for paying to get rid of them. They usually don't discuss what happens when the tenant has to spend money on other stuff - laundry, etc. Assuming you're in the United States, you are probably stuck with using your state's "tort law" - the general ability to sue someone for being negligent and damaging you in some way. But your landlord may be right that it is impossible to tell exactly how the bed bugs got into your place. You might have brought them in without knowing from traveling somewhere (they often sneak in through people's luggage). They might have been there when you moved in, from the previous tenant. If you're in a multiple-unit property, they might have crawled in through the walls from someone else's apartment. The basic point is that if you want to get paid for your laundry and furniture, you will probably have to be able to show that it was the negligence of your landlord that caused the bed bugs to be in your rental property. That's really hard to do - I can't think of a way to definitively prove where a bed bug infestation came from.

The only possibility you might have is talking to the person who rented the place before you did. If they tell you that it was infested with bed bugs before you moved in, then you might have legal rights to the kind of damages you're talking about. The theory would be that the landlord knew it had bed bugs before you moved in, but didn't do anything about it and didn't tell you. The result of that action is that you got bed bugs in all your stuff, when the landlord could have easily prevented it. Again, it's best to talk to a lawyer about this before proceeding with anything that could affect your legal rights.

If you're in another country, you might have different laws that would let you claim damages. For example, in Ontario you can go to this web site and fill out a form called a T6 that would let you request damages in the form of reduced rent. Every place is different. If you can't afford a lawyer (in the U.S. many will talk to you briefly for free anyway) then try asking any local government agencies that deal with health issues or property issues.

As far as whether to throw away your stuff, I would definitely not throw anything away without talking to an exterminator. It's really hard to give you a good answer on this without seeing the actual stuff. I would do two things: first, talk to the exterminator your landlord hires. Ask them if you should throw anything away. Some exterminators will tell you to, some will say you shouldn't because they can treat it. If the landlord's exterminator says to trash it, then get a second opinion. Call around and see if there is a local exterminator who will try to treat your furniture as well. If there is, then demand that the landlord hire them.

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