Don't Let the Bedbugs Bite

Your role and responsibility as a meeting planner

Did You Know?
• Bedbugs can't fly, but they will burrow into your clothes and find their way into your suitcase and thus into your home.

• They don't just live in beds. Nightstands, dresser drawers and upholstered furniture are among other common hiding spots.

• Bed Bug Alert (available for $1.99 from iTunes) shows the addresses of outbreaks reported by the media, governmental agencies and other users across the United States.

• See how fellow planners responded to an M&C survey about the creatures in "Bedbug Mania Is Here".

The lawsuits are beginning to mount. According to news reports, in Novem­ber, a Michigan couple sued the venerable Waldorf Astoria in New York City, alleging they were badly bitten by bedbugs while staying there in May for an insurance conference. David and Christine Drabicki claim they brought the pests home with them, causing an infestation in their house. The hotel has said the rooms were checked and no bugs were found.

Clearly, that old nighttime admonition from parents has taken on significant new meaning in the past year. Thought to be eradicated in the early 1940s, a massive infestation of these creepy crawlers, which are hard to detect, has caused consternation, concern and liability not only in the hotel industry, but everywhere from clothing stores, offices and taxi cabs to home bedrooms.

In court Since these reddish brown, wingless mites do not carry any known disease, the infestations are not a public health concern. They have, nonetheless, been the source of litigation in the hotel industry.

In 2003, the Seventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals confirmed a judgment of $186,000 in punitive damages plus $5,000 in actual damages each for two motel guests bitten by bedbugs.

A pattern of conduct showed that as early as 1998, an extermination service used by the motel discovered bedbugs in several rooms and recommended treatment for the property. While the charge was only $500, the motel declined the service. Over the next several years, when more bedbugs were discovered, the offer to do a building sweep was rejected each time. Eventually, the local manager recommended to her superior that the motel be closed while every room was sprayed and divested of the insects. This, too, was refused.

Desk clerks were instructed to call the bedbugs "ticks" on a theory that customers might be less alarmed, even though, in fact, ticks are far more dangerous because they spread Lyme and other diseases. All this blatant negligence led to liability.

Planners' attack With all this dire news, what should a planner do?

Find out what the policy of the property is relative to bedbugs or, for that matter, any other kind of infestation that might affect the availability of a room. In practice, hotels that find the bugs should close down and seal off the room, take all steps necessary to eradicate the insects and then institute preventative measures to make sure other rooms are not infested.

Write it down. It might be wise to get written assurance that the property will, indeed, adhere to its policy. You can opt to spell out such matters in the contract, particularly if your meeting will be in a city that has experienced an outbreak.

Still, while a definite nuisance, bedbugs would not qualify as a force majeure issue unless, of course, the hotel was forced to close down many or all of its rooms in order to properly deal with this irritating pest.

Are you liable? It would be a stretch to find a host organization liable for an infestation, unless there were serious, provable negligence on your part occurring during the hotel selection process.