A family residing in a rented apartment was awarded damages against its landlord because its apartment was infested by bedbugs. Aponte v. New York City Housing Authority, NYLJ 1202770540953 (Sup. Ct. Richmond Co. Oct. 13, 2016).

The tenants claimed that due to the landlord’s negligence, their apartment has suffered from bedbug infestation from 2012 through the present.  The landlord admitted that bedbugs were sometimes found in the apartment, but blamed the tenants for the condition.  The landlord moved to dismiss the tenants’ claims, but the court denied the motion, allowing the lawsuit to proceed to a jury trial.  (The landlord in this case was the New York City Housing Authority, but the court observed that with respect to the issues before it in this case, most of the laws governing the Housing Authority and private landlords are the same.)

 

In its decision, the Court relied on several statutes providing standards for housing that are expected of all landlords in New York State or City.  First, Real Property Law § 235-b creates a warranty of habitability applicable in residential landlord-tenant relationships.  The statute provides that in any lease of residential premises, the landlord is deemed to warrant that the leased premises and the common areas of the building “are fit for human habitation and for the uses reasonably intended by the parties and the occupants of such premises shall not be subjected to any conditions which would be dangerous, hazardous, or detrimental to their life, health or safety.”  The courts observed that “the presence of bedbugs in an apartment has been held to constitute a breach of the warranty of habitability.”

Second, Multiple Dwelling Law § 80, “Cleanliness,” provides that the owner of leased residential premises shall keep them “clean and free from vermin, dirt, filth, garbage, or other thing or matter dangerous to life and health.”  A bedbug infestation also violates this provision.  While the statute provides that the landlord is liable where a violation is caused by the tenant or those under the tenant’s control, here the landlord did not establish that this was the case, especially since there was no evidence that the landlord ever charged the tenants with creating unclean conditions or brought a legal proceeding against them.

Third, New York City Housing Maintenance Code § 27-2017 requires that landlords must keep the premises “free from rodents, and from infestation of insects and other pests, and from any condition conducive to rodent or insect or other pest life.”  Moreover, whenever any premises are subject to infestation, “the owner or occupant in control shall apply continuous eradication measures.”  Based on this provision, the tenants asserted that the landlord as “owner” was responsible for eradicating the bedbugs, while the Housing Authority asserted that the tenants as the “occupants in control” had this responsibility.  The court sided with the tenants, relying both on housing maintenance regulations as well as the landlord’s own rules for tenants, which contemplate that the landlord, rather than the tenant, will handle bedbug eradication.  The court concluded that “[t]his makes complete sense because no one would want a tenant to undertake eradication of bedbugs on the tenant’s own.  This could create a hazardous condition and threaten the safety of other occupants of the building.”  The court further observed that it was “questionable” whether the landlord could include a provision in the lease shifting responsibility for bedbug control to the tenants, but in any event, there was no evidence of such a provision in this case.

Turning to the specific facts before it, the court concluded that the landlord’s efforts to deal with the bedbugs, “though perhaps well intentioned, were and are inadequate.”  The court cited expert testimony outlining specific steps that should be taken as part of a thorough response to an infestation, such as removing switch covers and moldings where bedbugs may be harbored before spraying pesticides in the apartment, which the Housing Authority admittedly did not do.  The court also observed that a proper eradication effort requires fumigation of neighboring apartments as well as the apartment that is the subject of the bedbug complaint, and that this also was not done.

The landlord contended that “the standard to be applied is whether it acted in a reasonable manner to eradicate the bedbugs and not whether it was actually successful in doing so.”  However, unlike the tenants, the landlord had not provided an expert testimony on accepted industrywide standards for eradicating bedbugs in multiple dwellings.  The landlord did provide evidence from an entomologist familiar with the breeding habits of bedbugs, who stated that after the initial treatment of an apartment, a second application of the treatment should be made ten days to two weeks later – but there was no evidence that the landlord had followed its own expert’s recommendation.

The court concluded that the tenants had provided enough evidence that the landlord was at fault for failing to eradicate the bedbug infestation for four years.  Therefore, the pending jury trial on the tenants’ claims was completed, resulting in a verdict in favor of the tenants.