Burl and Desiree, brother and sister, stayed overnight at the 191-room Motel 6 in downtown Chicago (now a Red Roof Inn but with the same owner). When they awoke in the morning, they both had severe bites from bedbugs.
They claim that allowing guests to be attacked by bedbugs in a motel that charges more than $100 a night for a room was “willful and wanton conduct,” which makes the motel owner liable for compensatory damages plus punitive damages.
Purchase Bob Bruss reports online.
Not receiving a satisfactory response from the Motel 6 owners for their inconvenience and many bites, Burl and Desiree sued the hotel owners for compensatory and punitive damages. The defendant owners of the Motel 6 replied that, at most, they are liable for negligence, but not punitive damages.
Evidence presented at the trial showed EcoLab, an extermination service hired by the motel, discovered bedbugs in many rooms and recommended the firm be hired to spray every room at a total cost of $500 to the motel. But the motel manager refused to approve the expenditure.
As bedbugs were discovered in various rooms, EcoLab was asked to spray just the affected room. When the motel manager noticed many guest refunds given by front desk clerks for bedbug bites, she discovered most of the rooms were affected. However, the Motel 6 district manager refused to approve a complete spraying of the motel for bedbugs.
The night Burl and Desiree stayed at the motel, their room was classified as “do not rent until treated.” But the front desk clerk rented it anyway because no other rooms were available.
IF YOU WERE THE JUDGE would you award Burl and Desiree compensatory damages plus punitive damages for their bedbug bites?
The judge said YES!
The evidence presented at trial by Burl and Desiree shows their bedbug bites were painful and unsightly, the judge began. “Motel 6 could not have rented any rooms at the prices it charged had it informed guests that the risk of being bitten by bedbugs was appreciable. Its failure either to warn guests or to take effective measures to eliminate the bedbugs amounted to fraud and probably battery as well,” he continued.
There was sufficient evidence to show willful and wanton conduct to permit the plaintiffs an award of both compensatory damages and punitive damages to discourage such future conduct, the judge continued.
Punitive damages imply punishment, he explained. “The defendant’s behavior was outrageous, but the compensable harm done was slight and at the same time difficult to quantify because a large element of it was emotional,” the judge emphasized.
“And the defendant may well have profited from its misconduct because by concealing the infestation it was able to keep renting rooms. Refunds were frequent but may have cost less than the cost of closing the hotel for a thorough fumigation,” he observed.
Evidence presented shows the defendant has a net worth of $1.6 billion, which is very relevant, the judge noted. “It is difficult to explain the great stubbornness with which it has defended this case, making a host of frivolous evidentiary arguments,” he added.
Considering the defendant’s substantial net worth, an award of $5,000 compensatory damages plus $186,000 punitive damages to each of the plaintiffs is reasonable, the judge ruled. The defendant is fortunate the city did not revoke the motel’s license for allowing unsanitary conditions to exist, the judge concluded.
Based on the 2003 U.S. Court of Appeals decision in Mathias v. Accor Economy Lodging Inc. and Motel 6 Operating L.P., 347 Fed.3d 672.
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