In all states but Arkansas, landlord are required to provide tenants a safe and livable home, under what’s known as the implied warranty of habitability. This includes exterminating infestations of rodents and other vermin that endanger a tenant’s health or safety. A widespread bed bug infestation would qualify as a habitability problem, and some states have specific laws on landlord responsibility for bed bug eradication. See the National Conference of State Legislatures’ compilation of state bed bug laws for details on your state.
If your landlord is responsible for cleaning up a bed bug infestation (see Landlord Responsibility for Bed Bugs), but refuses to do so (by hiring an exterminator, for example), you may, depending on where you live, have several options. These include withholding rent, paying for the extermination and deducting the costs from your rent, and moving out without future liability for rent. We emphasize the word “may” have these options, because it depends not only on your state laws on rent withholding and other tenant protections, but the details of the specific bed bug problem. The more the landlord can demonstrate that he or she took steps to immediately and effectively try to eliminate the bed bugs, the weaker your case.
Depending on the specifics of your case, you may also have grounds for suing your landlord for failure to provide habitable premises by eradicating the bed bugs. See the Nolo article What Landlords Need to Tell Tenants About Bed Bugs in the Building for additional circumstances that may strengthen a lawsuit.
You can probably use small claims court, which allows claims of up to several thousand dollars, to sue your landlord for bed bugs. It’s relatively inexpensive to sue in small claims court, you don’t need a lawyer (in fact, some states don’t allow lawyers in small claims court), and disputes usually go before a judge within a month or so. For your state limit and rules, see Nolo’s Small Claims Court and Lawsuits Center, starting with the 50-State Overview of Small Claims Rules.
You may be able to sue your landlord for:
Before filing a small claims lawsuit, be sure to send your landlord a written demand letter (this is required in some states as a condition of filing a small claims lawsuit) that explains your legal rights and what you want from the landlord. Also, take your time preparing evidence, including photos of the bed bug problems, your complaint letters to your landlord or manager, reports of and receipts from any exterminators you hired, and statements from other tenants in the building.
Whether you use small claims court or sue the landlord in another court, you may want to consult with an attorney. To find an experienced tenants’ attorney, check out the landlord-tenant lawyers listed in Nolo’s Lawyer Directory. If there is an attorney fees clause in your lease or rental agreement, you may be entitled to reimbursement for your attorney fees and court costs if you win your lawsuit against your landlord; this assumes that your dispute arises out of your lease or rental agreement—for example, if your landlord fails to comply with repair and maintenance rules specified in your lease or rental agreement.
For practical information on handling disputes and landlord liability issues, from move in to move out, from bed bugs to security deposits, see Every Tenant’s Legal Guide, by Janet Portman and Marcia Stewart (Nolo).