Jan. 10, 2011 -- New York's famed Waldorf-Astoria has been hit with a third lawsuit, accusing the luxury hotel of not doing enough to prevent bedbugs. Unlike other recent suits, the Maryland guest seeking $10 million in damages claims to have been bitten back in August 2007.
The suit by Svetlana Tendler is the latest in a long string of high-profile cases against hotels from guests who say they've had bad experiences with the pests.
There was the $20 million suit in 2006 against a Catskills resort from a couple who said they got 500 bites while staying at the now-closed Nevele Grande Hotel. A few months later came another multi-million suit from a couple who said they got red, itchy welts from the insects after a five-night stay at the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park Hotel in London.
Suing for millions of dollars is one thing; winning the case is something else.
Timothy M. Wenk, a lawyer who defends hotels and apartment landlords from bedbug suits, said the landmark case in the field is Mathias v. Accor Economy Lodging, where a brother and sister were awarded $372,000 in punitive damages.
"I don't think that [large of an amount] would happen today given the notoriety of the bedbugs," Wenk said.
Hotels have become more proactive about bedbugs, he said, and tend to immediately provide new rooms or refunds to people who experience issues. The "shock value" and stigma of bedbugs has gone away, Wenk said, and with it the large settlements.
"I predict in a few years it will be like being bitten by a mosquito," Wenk said.
So why the big multi-million lawsuits?
"Some people, as in human nature, get greedy," Wenk said.
A successful bedbug lawsuit must show not that just that a guest was bitten by the pests but that the hotel management had prior knowledge of the problem and choose to ignore it.
Take the case of Mathias v. Accor Economy Lodging. Burl and Desiree Mathias checked into a Motel 6 on East Ontario Street in Chicago (now a Red Roof Inn) back in November of 2002. They had a reservation but almost every room was rented. So the motel put them in Room 504, even though it was on "Do not rent" status.
After the first night, welts started to appear, according to testimony. 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." Then he woke in the middle of the night and saw numerous bugs rushing from his body to the sheets and the bed. Horrified, the guests asked the motel to put them up elsewhere but were only given another room on the same floor.
The motel had long known about the bugs, according to the trial record. In 1998, EcoLab, an extermination service the motel used, had discovered bedbugs in several rooms and recommended that it be hired to spray the entire property. The cost: $500. The motel refused. EcoLab was hired again the following year to spray just one room. By 2000, the manager was noticing that front desk clerks were receiving several complaints from guests who reported bugs and bites.
The manager eventually suggested to her corporate bosses to close the entire building so it could be sprayed by an exterminator. That request was denied.
As for the Waldorf-Astoria, its corporate parent, Hilton, would not comment on the particular cases because of the pending litigation. But a company spokesman said the hotel trains employees in the tell-tale signs of bedbugs. It also has a pest control service on retainer to perform appropriate inspections and treatments, if warranted.
"At the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, hotel management and our guests take the issue of pest control, including bedbugs, very seriously and share a concern with keeping pests out of the hotel. The safety and comfort of our guests are our top priority. To that end, our hotel maintains high levels of vigilance, and we perform regularly scheduled inspections," the spokesman said. "In the unlikely and unusual event the hotel or a guest suspects a problem, the area in question is isolated to determine whether a problem exists and the situation is immediately remedied."