If we had a 24-hour bedbug channel, Mathias v. Accor Economy Lodging, Inc. would be our favorite movie of the week, with endlessly looping re-runs on weekends and major holidays.
It’s a juicy, outrageous story complete with scenes of the plaintiff’s lawyer passing a jar of bed bugs to the jurors and damning testimony by a former employee of the defendant.
In fact, it’s difficult to imagine a more righteous bed bug lawsuit.
The events in question happened in 2000, well before Bedbugger and, I hope, well before most of us had bed bugs — but we’ll come back to that.
Burl and Desiree Mathias spent two nights at a Motel 6 in Chicago in November 2000. The welts appeared after the first night. On the second night, Burl Mathias found two bugs, but did not know what they were so “he killed them with a tissue and went to sleep.” [Update: this quote was from an Angie’s List magazine article on this case which has now gone offline; the quotation also occurs in this ABC News article on the Waldorf-Astoria bed bug case in 2011].
Awaking after 1 a.m., Burl allegedly lifted his sheets and saw numerous bugs scurrying from his body to the sheets and bed. “Horrified, [he] sprang up and discovered the blood-engorged insects crawling about the inside of the bed where he previously lay,” Stamatis [Peter Stamatis, the Mathiases’ attorney] stated. Once the lights were on, the siblings reported seeing bugs on the beds, furniture and walls. They asked to be transferred to another hotel, says their attorney, but were instead moved to a different room on the same floor.
The Mathiases sued and the jury awarded $5,000 in compensatory damages and $186,000 in punitive damages, a total of $191,000 to each sibling.
Accor Economy Lodging and Motel 6 Operating appealed, of course. And we may well be grateful, for now we can enjoy the rest of the story in the brilliant appellate judge’s eminently readable affirming decision:
In 1998, EcoLab, the extermination service that the motel used, discovered bed bugs in several rooms in the motel and recommended that it be hired to spray every room, for which it would charge the motel only $ 500; the motel refused. The next year, bedbugs were again discovered in a room but EcoLab was asked to spray just that room. The motel tried to negotiate “a building sweep [by EcoLab] free of charge,” but, not surprisingly, the negotiation failed. By the spring of 2000, the motel’s manager “started noticing that there were refunds being given by my desk clerks and reports coming back from the guests that there were ticks in the rooms and bugs in the rooms that were biting.” She looked in some of the rooms and discovered bed bugs.
Further incidents of guests being bitten by insects and demanding and receiving refunds led the manager to recommend to her superior in the company that the motel be closed while every room was sprayed, but this was refused.
Anyone care to hazard a guess as to how many bedbugs were in this motel, untreated, uncontrolled, dispersing from room to room for two whole years? How fast does something like this happen? We have a hint, albeit in a different context, from UK entomologist Clive Boase when he tells us that “[i]n one housing block, infestations spread from room to adjoining room at a rate of about one room per seven weeks, with dispersion taking place primarily along plumbing runs.” [Source: Boase, C. J. (2004) Bed-bugs – reclaiming our cities. Biologist, 51 (1), 1-4; non-working link to PDF of article removed, 2014.]
What about the $500 quote to treat the entire hotel? Or what those motel-PCO negotiations must have been like? But wait, almost improbably, there’s more:
The infestation continued and began to reach farcical proportions, as when a guest, after complaining of having been bitten repeatedly by insects while asleep in his room in the hotel was moved to another room only to discover insects there; and within 18 minutes of being moved to a third room he discovered insects in that room as well and had to be moved still again. (Odd that at that point he didn’t flee the motel.) By July, the motel’s management was acknowledging to EcoLab that there was a “major problem with bed bugs” and that all that was being done about it was “chasing them from room to room.” Desk clerks were instructed to call the “bedbugs” “ticks,” apparently on the theory that customers would be less alarmed, though in fact ticks are more dangerous than bedbugs because they spread Lyme Disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Rooms that the motel had placed on “Do not rent, bugs in room” status nevertheless were rented.
It was in November that the plaintiffs checked into the motel. They were given Room 504, even though the motel had classified the room as “DO NOT RENT UNTIL TREATED,” and it had not been treated. Indeed, that night 190 of the hotel ‘s 191 rooms were occupied, even though a number of them had been placed on the same don’t-rent status as Room 504.
191 rooms, hence the 191K award to each sibling, and what are the odds that poor guy just gave up with the fourth room.
Dark thought? Did hotels take notes on this one and merely do away with their “Do not rent, bugs in room” status codes?
Even darker thought? One of us has bed bugs descended from Room 504. Perhaps a lot of us. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination nor a biblical list of who begat whom to consider how so many bedbugs in so many rooms could leave to so many destinations with their new possibly puzzled, possibly oblivious, plenty of them non-itchy, hosts. How many of us even knew what bed bugs were in 1998-2000? (The proximity of this timeline to the beginning of the resurgence is provocative; perhaps someone with an armchair interest in epidemiological analysis will care to weigh in.)
I really should resist but can’t help noting that Motel 6 is known for its “we’ll leave the light on for you” tag line.
I will further note that the Motel 6 in Chicago where all of this happened is now a shiny Red Roof Inn, same corporate parent, with nary a bedbug complaint on tripadvisor… well, only one mildly suggestive one, anyway.
This Chicago Tribune article discusses the significance of Judge Richard Posner’s decision in the debate over punitive damages. For another appreciation of Judge Posner and this decision, see this Harvard Law Review article (PDF), although it does muse unconvincingly at the end about how businesses like Motel 6 which depend on customers have built-in incentives to protect their reputations and need not be deterred from wrongdoing with the specter of large punitive damages. Judge Posner would probably disagree and indeed noted that “the defendant is investing in developing a reputation intended to deter plaintiffs. It is difficult otherwise to explain the great stubborness with which it has defended this case, making a host of frivolous evidentiary arguments despite the very modest stakes even when the punitive damages awarded by the jury are included.”
By the way, in his decision, Judge Posner said that Motel 6’s “failure either to warn guests or to take effective measures to eliminate the bedbugs amounted to fraud and probably to battery as well.” Bedbug battery. Righteous.