Faika Shaaban developed an itchy rash the day she moved into an Annapolis apartment in the fall of 2011.
The hundreds of bites, the lesions and the resulting scarring were from bedbugs. She had no idea that she'd rented an apartment whose landlord had been notified of a potential bedbug infestation only weeks earlier, according to her lawsuit against the landlord.
An Anne Arundel County jury awarded the 69-year-old woman $800,000 this week, an amount that lawyers familiar with such cases said was the highest they have seen. Most of that — $650,000 — was in punitive damages, more than she had sought.
The case highlights the growth in bedbug lawsuits nationwide. And it demonstrates the ire of jurors not only over the insects but also over landlords who they feel didn't deal with a known infestation, said Shaaban's attorney, Daniel W. Whitney of Towson.
"She lost practically everything due to this," he said.
He said it was the jury's "opportunity to send a message to the community, to landlords, that you must abate it."
The defendant, landlord Cornelius J. Barrett and West Street Partnership, which owns the property and of which Barrett is a general partner, did not respond to the lawsuit, according to Whitney and court records. He could not be reached to comment.
In a 2002 case, a jury awarded $382,000 to a brother and sister who said they were besieged by bedbugs at a Motel 6 in Chicago when they stayed in a room that management knew was infested.
Whitney has more than 75 bedbug cases, nearly all in Maryland, and said he's turned away hundreds of potential bedbug clients in the past two-and-a-half years.
"You are going to see a rapid growth of bedbug claims over the next decade. There are enough lawyers who are getting trained so that people will be able to find lawyers, so that people will find a way to get relief," said lawyer Tom Campbell of Birmingham, Ala., who advises other lawyers.
This week's verdict has landlords taking notice.
A landlord doesn't put bedbugs in a unit, yet "the landlord is being faced with the burden of fixing this problem," said Ben Frederick, president of the Property Owners Association of Greater Baltimore.
Landlords are pushing to shift responsibility onto tenants in leases that say that if bedbugs don't turn up before or soon after a tenant moves in, the tenant must pay for extermination.
Greg Countess, assistant director of advocacy at the Maryland Legal Aid Bureau, said he is increasingly seeing leases that give the landlord reason to terminate a lease and evict a tenant if the landlord can prove a tenant brought in bedbugs. Many landlords, he said, push tenants to buy renters' insurance "to protect property that might be lost due to a bedbug infestation."
"The first time, I will come in and spray. If you don't do all the steps we tell you to do, like clean the bed linen and the clothing, then the next spray is on you. Or you live with them," said Sharon Hooper, president of the Carroll County Landlord Association, who said she has her units regularly inspected by pest control companies.
"Most landlords are documenting, 'Here's what we do,'" said Adam Skolnik, executive director of the Maryland Multi-Housing Association. "We have some landlords who are doing pre-inspections of the unit with dogs that are trained to find bedbugs."
In the Shaaban case, the lawsuit alleged that the infestation had not been cleared up when Shaaban rented the apartment at the end of September 2011, and that Barrett, the landlord, did not respond to another tenant's complaints about bedbugs. Annapolis records show Barrett was taking steps in August 2011 to remedy a mice and potential bedbug infestation.
When Shaaban went in April 2012 to Anne Arundel County housing officials for help in finding a new apartment, Whitney said, she was told the rash was from bedbugs. The landlord's effort to deal with the bedbugs worsened the infestation and damaged her personal property, Whitney said.
When Shaaban was evicted, scavengers took her belongings from the curb — despite her short-lived sign advising people not to, Whitney said. "All of these items went into the community infested," he said.
The structure was cited for other violations, and the landlord fined $200. The property went into foreclosure, records show.