Q: I have a bedbug infestation in my duplex. I have treated the upper and lower unit four times each. However, the bed bugs continue to return. The exterminator claims the bedbugs return because tenant in the upper unit isn’t performing the follow-up cleaning necessary (washing bedding and linens) to get rid of the infestation permanently. Is there legal action I can take?
A: Every residential landlord in California must at all times provide the tenant with a habitable rental unit. This obligation requires the landlord to ensure that the rental unit is free from pests, including bedbugs.
But the tenant is not without legal responsibilities as well. Specifically, a tenant has a legal obligation to keep the rental unit in a clean and sanitary condition at all times. If the tenant’s failure to comply with this obligation contributes substantially to the existence of a defective condition, such as a bedbug infestation, or interferes substantially with the landlord’s obligation to repair that condition, then the landlord would not be responsible for the cost to repair.
A written rental agreement may impose additional responsibilities on the tenant. For instance, the current SFAA rental agreement includes a Bedbug Addendum, which sets forth in detail the tenant’s specific responsibilities to cooperate with the pest control.
Notwithstanding the legal and contractual responsibilities, it is can often be difficult to prove that the tenant’s housekeeping habits were the cause of a bedbug infestation. For this reason it may be difficult to hold the tenant liable for the cost to eradicate the bedbugs.
Nevertheless, in a situation like this where there have been multiple attempts by the landlord to eradicate the bedbugs and where it is obvious that the tenant is frustrating these eradication efforts, then the landlord may have greater recourse against the tenant. The landlord should carefully review the written rental agreement to determine whether there are any provisions outlining the landlord’s and tenant’s responsibilities in this situation. If so, then the landlord should ensure that the tenant strictly complies with his or her obligations. Otherwise, the tenant may be in breach of the rental agreement and the landlord may not only hold the tenant responsible for the cost to eradicate the bedbugs, but the landlord may even have grounds for eviction based on substantially violating a lawful obligation of the tenancy.
If there is no specific language in the rental agreement, then the landlord may still be able to hold the tenant responsible for failing to comply with the legal obligation to keep the rental unit in a clean and sanitary condition and for preventing the landlord from effectively eradicating the bedbugs.
In any event, the landlord should make sure that he or she has taken all reasonable steps to eradicate the bedbugs. This may even include offering to clean the tenant’s linens and bedding.