Elderly apartment residents in Des Moines seek class action status for bedbug lawsuit

January 24, 2011 by

Lawyers for roughly 300 current and former residents of two Des Moines, Iowa apartment buildings for the elderly and disabled filed court papers January 18, 2011, alleging that managers knew about a massive bedbug infestation for more than two years but refused to warn tenants or to properly treat it until they were sued.  The documents, filed as part of a March 2010 Polk County lawsuit, ask a judge to kick-start the slow-moving case by formally certifying it as a class action and pushing it closer toward trial.

Tenants at Elsie Mason Manor and Ligutti Towers in Des Moines seek money for back rent, lost property and other hardships suffered because of the bedbug problem.  Residents sued last year amid complaints that they’d been repeatedly bitten, forced to discard infested furniture and shunned by relatives and by other landlords now too afraid to rent to them.

The head of American Baptist Homes of the Midwest, a Minnesota agency that manages the buildings for the First Baptist Elderly Housing Foundation in Johnston, acknowledged there had been a failure and pledged to do better.  Dave Zwickey, president and chief executive of American Baptist, also admitted that the buildings are still not bedbug-free but stressed tremendous progress.

New court documents say the bedbug infestation at Elsie Mason Manor and Ligutti Towers dates to at least October 2007, when ABC Pest Control treated one apartment on Elsie Mason’s 17th floor. By the end of that year, the bedbugs had spread to two other floors in the 17-story building. By the end of 2008, they had been found on 10 floors. By December 2009, the still-growing problem was evident on 14 floors of Elsie Mason and five floors of Ligutti.

Documents say part of the issue was that Elsie Mason’s management left it up to residents to prepare apartments for visits by exterminators. Roughly half the tenants were unable to complete time-consuming and laborious steps such as repeatedly drying, washing and re-drying clothes, bagging belongings in plastic and moving furniture away from baseboards.

According to an affidavit from ABC Pest Control technician Steve Randolph contained in the new paperwork, building manager Frank Spoerl repeatedly refused the company’s proposal to provide preparation help for tenants because the fee was deemed too expensive. Randolph said ABC supplied free bedbug monitors to be placed in the apartments, but it’s uncertain whether any were ever installed.

Building management “has been completely lethargic,” Randolph said in the documents. “I am confident that had the recommendations we offered as far back as September of 2008 to more aggressively treat the building not been ignored and dismissed, this problem could have been controlled at a fraction of the costs.”

Court papers quote Dawn Edwards, a former receptionist at Elsie Mason and Ligutti, as saying she was told not to mention bedbugs to prospective tenants because managers “wanted to create the impression the building was ‘a warm and welcoming place.’ ”

According to 106 interviews and affidavits collected from current and former tenants for the lawsuit, 68 percent of Elsie Mason and Ligutti residents signed leases without being told about the bedbug issue. Sixty-five percent have told lawyers they ended up with bedbugs in their apartment at least one time, according to the lawsuit. Fifty-four percent said they’ve been bitten by bedbugs at one of the buildings.

Steve Larson
An experienced trial lawyer who handles both hourly and contingent fee cases, Steve has expertise in class actions, consumer cases, antitrust litigation, securities litigation, corporate disputes, intellectual property disputes, unfair competition claims, employment matters, and disputes involving family wealth. Steve regularly represents individuals and businesses in federal and state court and has obtained class-wide recovery in multiple class actions. A veteran practitioner, Steve's clients value his creative approach to resolving complex litigation matters.

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