February 14, 2009 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver
You’ve heard the saying, “Sleep Tight and don’t let the Bedbugs bite,” but have probably never seen a real bedbug. Since the 1950s — and use of DDT with other powerful insecticides — these pests were thought to have been fairly well eradicated.
But they’re back, in large part due to increased travel, banned, effective pesticides, and furniture — even new furniture — delivered in trucks which have carried bedbug infested items.
Bedbugs are small, blood-sucking, reddish insects no more than 1/8th of an inch in length. They hitched a ride with America’s earliest European settlers, and have had a “close” relationship with North America ever since.
They are called “bed bugs” because warmth and nearby blood source is what attracts them. They just love bedroom furniture, because dinner — that’s us, folks — is served at a comfortable 98.6 Fahrenheit around an hour before sunrise. What is so diabolically interesting about how they feed, is the way they are able to painlessly suck the victim’s blood for several minutes. They actually inject a form of anesthetic, leaving victims unaware of what took place while they slept.
“Dinner” may have no idea until days or months later that anything is out of the ordinary. Skin may have a rash-like appearance, suggesting an allergic condition — instead of the real cause — sending patients and physicians chasing the wrong cause. Usually, where an insect bite is suspected, mosquitoes get the blame.
Where children are repeatedly bitten by bedbugs, emotional harm and fear often results. It was that way for 9-year-old Annette Hertz who, for several months, was bitten nightly by bedbugs after her parents bought a captain’s bed frame from Oak Furniture Liquidators in Bakersfield.
Here are the facts as You and the Law has been able to determine. I will state at the outset, there is no conclusive, scientific proof that Oak Furniture Liquidators delivered bedbugs along with the bed frame. But according to pest control experts I spoke with, “no other source of infestation appears remotely possible.”
Despite our request for comment, Oak Furniture Liquidators have issued no statement. As you will see, their lawyer was not quite as shy, nor was their sarcastic, “Hide the ball,” insurance adjuster.
On March 31, 2007, Doug Hertz bought a captain’s bed frame from Oak Furniture Liquidators. Their parent company is Winey-Bice Inc, and operates furniture stores in a number of Southern California locations.
Oak promptly delivered the captain’s bed to the Hertz family and it was installed in Annette’s room. They used her 3-year-old mattress.
Oak is a friendly company to deal with. I was informed that, within 14 days, “if a customer is unhappy with a purchase, we’ll pick it up, and bring it back to the store for sale as is.” I was also told by an Oak employee that, “like most other furniture stores, we will take away your old furniture and mattress.”
That’s important, as new furniture can easily become infested with bedbugs during transportation. Bed bugs move rapidly.
Within two months, Annette developed a rash. A number of doctors had no idea the cause, “as bedbugs aren’t exactly the first thing they think of,” Doug was told.
This curious skin illness went on for months, and Annette’s asthma worsened. In June of 2008, Doug went to wake his daughter, finding blood stains on the sheets and bite marks all over her body. Inspecting the bed and frame, he found bedbugs everywhere.
“I tried to eradicate them, myself, unsuccessfully and hired a pest control company. Despite their efforts, the bedbugs migrated into our bedroom,” he explained. Residing in Tehachapi, at 5,000 feet elevation — where it’s cold outside — no other neighbors have a similar problem.
“We have thrown out everything from my daughter’s room, replaced carpet, repainted, bought new furniture, and this has cost over $6,000. Oak only offered to replace the bed. We submitted a claim to their insurance company which was rejected in September 2008,” he told me.
After Oak’s refused to speak with me, I did get a call from their corporation’s attorney, Mark Thomas, of San Francisco whose attitude was, during every phone call, sarcastic and caustic, as was the Unigard adjuster who rejected the claim. “We are not changing our position. There are other facts of which you might not be aware.” “OK, like what? Tell me,” I replied. “I’m not going to tell you,” was her response, and then hung up. Mr. Thomas accused me of attempting to blackmail his client. “If we don’t pay them, you are going to write a negative story, aren’t you?” I told him that if I wrote a story, it would be truthful, and that he was welcome to speak with Doug, as I was not representing him. He did, and asked for a complete breakdown of all of their losses, and Thomas would “See what he could do to get the insurance company to change its position.”That information was received by his San Francisco office prior to Christmas 2008. It sat on his desk for weeks. “I was busy in trial,” was his excuse for doing nothing.
In my legal opinion, he undertook a duty to help Doug and his family, and his client as well. He did neither.
I ran this fact situation by a manager at one of the oldest and best respected furniture stores in my town, who asked to remain anonymous.
“This is a real, known problem for all furniture dealers. All of us pick up old furniture and mattresses, and hope nothing happens. But it’s a huge risk. There needs to be a law preventing us from transporting new furniture — especially bedding — in trucks which carry away old, used items. If it were us, I would bite the bullet and help the customer.”
So what’s the right thing to do? In my legal opinion, based upon the research I have done in bedbug cases, Oak Furniture Liquidators should have immediately stepped up to the plate and done whatever was necessary to help eliminate the bedbug infestation.
In a virtually identical fact situation in New Jersey, Attorney Kevin M. Siegel in July 2008 obtained a $49,000 verdict for customers of J.C. Penney who had been treated very much the way Oak Furniture Liquidators dealt with the Hertz family.
The management at Oak Furniture Liquidators and their attorney might want to take a moment and look into this case. They will find it instructive.
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.