Prevent the Itch! Hospitality Industry Tips to Avoid or Manage the Risk of Bed Bugs

By:  Kimberly Neal, Esquire                                                               kneal@pklaw.com

It’s hard not to love travel.  The Dalai Lama suggests “Once a year, go somewhere you have never been before,” and Audrey Hepburn proclaimed that “Paris is always a good idea.”  But with bed bugs on the rise, travelers may be wise to proceed with caution and hotels must be vigilant in risk management efforts.

Indeed, bed bug infestations, which are especially prevalent in the summer months, have increased significantly in the last fifteen years with hotels and motels serving as the third most popular location to find bed bugs, according to recent surveys of pest control professionals.  Once in a hotel room, bed bugs can spread quickly and easily to other rooms and common areas through pipes, wall sockets, vacuum cleaners, clothing, and many other means.  While they are most often found on mattresses and box springs, bed bugs can live on any soft surface, as well as less obvious “homes” such as wallpaper and lampshades. A single bed bug is virtually invisible to the naked eye, but multiple bed bugs – or their droppings – can be detected and resemble black dirt or ground pepper.  A savvy traveler should put her luggage in the bathroom or even in the bath tub, because bed bugs have a hard time clinging to the slippery surface.  She can also inspect the room upon arrival by removing the bed sheets to look for black or reddish “dirt” stains, which could be bed bugs, around the mattress piping. 

Unfortunately, most travelers don’t know or think to look for bed bugs.  Those who find themselves in an infested room may be bitten and develop an itchy rash.  While the rash itself will not usually require treatment and should subside once the traveler has rid herself of the bedbugs, many who have been bitten suggest that the experience is terrifying at best and life-changing at worse.  Accordingly, if the traveler elects to sue the hotel where she was allegedly exposed, her lawyer will amplify the damages for “pain and suffering,” including mental distress and loss of consortium for married couples, rather than rely on actual medical damages.  Property damages may also be recovered, if the bitten traveler is forced to destroy luggage, clothes, or other items in order to eradicate the bed bugs.  In rare cases where an allergic reaction has occurred, damages can run into six figures.  Indeed, Maryland juries have awarded as much as $800,000 in damages resulting from bed bugs!  Hotel owners are justifiably concerned about bed bug prevention, and their insurance carriers are taking the legal claims more seriously.  Theories of liability include negligence and even battery.

It is virtually impossible for a hotel owner to completely prevent the possibility of a bed bug infestation.  However, regular inspections, heat treatments, and monitoring devices may help detect an infestation early.  Additionally, hotel owners should proactively limit areas where bed bugs can hide by sealing cracks and removing clutter and through proper use of mattress and pillow covers.  If bed bugs are present, re-inspections and additional treatments should be scheduled over at least six months or longer.   

It is crucial for hotels to (a) anticipate that any guest could introduce bed bugs into the facility, and (b) adopt a written plan to address bedbug infestations upon discovery, particularly to limit the risk of a large infestation. Eradication typically requires treatment of the affected room and adjacent rooms by a licensed pest control professional; indeed, some states require licenses and certifications to address the bed bug infestation.  The guest should be provided with a new room and the hotel should offer to clean the guest’s clothing and belongings that were exposed to the bed bugs.  Facts relating to the infestation and the guest’s exposure should be documented, and employees should be trained to prepare a thorough report.  Should the guest sue, the hotel will need to show that it exercised reasonable care to prevent bedbug infestation and in reporting any infestation in order to limit damages.

Kimberly Neal is an attorney with the law firm Pessin Katz Law, P.A. and a member of the firm’s General Litigation and Retail and Hospitality Groups. She is a Member of the Maryland and District of Columbia Bars and focuses her practice on business litigation, including general commercial litigation, the defense of employment-related claims, construction law and insurance defense.  A member of the National Association of Catering and Events and Legal Advisor for the Baltimore Fashion Alliance, she enjoys presenting on and assisting clients with business law matters, particularly within the event planning, catering, hospitality and retail industries. Ms. Neal can be reached at 410-339-5791or kneal@pklaw.com.

 

Sources:       “Bed Bugs in Hotel Rooms Are On the Rise (Yuck),” Katherine LaGrave, Conde Nast Traveler, February 10, 2016.

“Bed Bug Lawsuits on the Increase,” Andrea Siegel, The Baltimore Sun, May 31, 2013.

“Take the Bit Out of Bed Bug Litigation,” Roger E. Gold, Ph.D., Retired  Professor and Endowed Chair for Urban and Structural Entomology, Texas A&M University, presented to DRI – Strictly Hospitality on September 22, 2011.