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The Dunning-Kruger Effect and Bedbug Lawsuits in Small Claims Courts

Those who have the slightest bit of experience think they know it all.

Recently, I have been seeing an uptick in bedbug lawsuits that fail in small claims courts all across the country. Although many of these cases initially had some legitimate merit, many of them were dismissed for reasons that may have been avoidable. By far, the primary reason these otherwise legitimate complaints were unsuccessful in court can be attributed to the Plaintiff’s own ignorance.

Let’s explore that word for a minute. The word itself, ignorance, has a very negative connotation in our culture. This is unfair, in my view, because the word, ignorance, simply means a lack of knowledge. Regardless of its literal meaning, if you called someone ignorant in today’s world you can expect a poke on the nose.  That’s because within our society we often equate ignorance as being weak. In other words, to admit that you don’t know something would be tantamount to admitting that you are powerless within the construct of our modern world.

We see this struggle against admitting one’s own ignorance happening all around us all of the time. Our friends, our co-workers, pundits on television, even people we deal with infrequently would rather give an answer, often based on “gut instinct” and pure conjecture, rather than to admit that they just don’t know. Put simply, most people would rather give an incorrect answer rather than be deemed ignorant and lose face.

What can I do to increase my chances of success in Small Claims Court?

The best way that you can decrease your ignorance is to first admit that you may have a problem. A wise bedbug Plaintiff is a person that can easily admit that there are certain things that they simply cannot know that they need to know in court. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld once coined this dilemma as the “unknown unknowns”. Put simply, there are a myriad of procedural errors and other tactical pitfalls that you simply cannot prepare for because you are not well versed in the law. You do not have the requisite skills to know just how little you actually know about issues that can torpedo your case.  

Let’s fix that by bringing you up to speed about 5 things that can greatly increase your chances of success in your bedbug lawsuit.

  1.           Small Claims Court Judges are not always neutral
  2.      Bedbugs are a relatively new thing
  3.      PMP “Pre-Move in Inspections”
  4.      Avail yourself of local government health agencies
  5.      Always tell the truth

Most small claims court judges are elected officials (politicians).

In America it is illegal to bribe a judge. However, there are ways to indirectly influence judges by contributing to their election/re-election campaigns. Imagine for a moment that you are a wealthy landlord who owns a large amount of residential and commercial rental properties. A good example of that might be a landlord who has three large apartment complexes and some storage rental facilities all located within the same city. If you happen to rent these properties out over any length of time it is very likely that at some point you will eventually have to evict someone or, take them to court over contract disputes.  Therefore, it would behoove you to ingratiate yourself with the judges that preside over the local courts in your area. You can accomplish that by donating large amounts of money to the election campaigns of those judges. Although this will not always ensure a favorable result, you can “put your thumb” on the scale of justice simply by contributing thousands of dollars to the judicial campaigns in your jurisdiction. 

There is a dirty little secret saying within the legal community: “a good lawyer knows the law, but a great lawyer knows the judge”. Keep that in mind when deciding whether to retain legal counsel for your case.

Bedbugs are a relatively new thing to most small claims court judges.

Following World War II bedbugs had been largely eradicated throughout most of the United States. The widespread use of a powerful pesticide called DDT had all but effectively removed the scourge of bedbugs from most of American society by the end of the 1960s. That was until DDT was later found to be an especially dangerous toxin to a wide variety of birds and other animals. Specifically, it was discovered that DDT persisted within the food chain and weakened the shells of egg laying creatures, rendering the walls of their eggshells too thin to be viable. 

In other words, mosquitoes sprayed with DDT and then eaten by small birds would transfer the DDT toxins onto larger predatory birds which had consumed them. This discovery coincided with the placement of the American Bald Eagle onto the endangered species list. DDT was suspected as the reason why the Bald Eagle population had dwindled to record lows throughout the country. Beginning in the 1970s, the Environmental Protection Agency banned all use of DDT throughout the country. Shortly thereafter America began experiencing a resurgence of bedbugs, albeit limited mostly to larger urban areas throughout the country.

Fast forward to the Olympic games in China during the summer of 2008. There in Beijing, hundreds of thousands of international travelers from all over the world gathered in hotels and other group housing projects for weeks. Entomologists have since determined that strains of bedbugs usually found throughout parts of the Middle-East and North Africa hitchhiked back home in the luggage of many of those tourists. Consequently, after the 2008 Summer Games the U.S. experienced a massive spike in the number of reported bedbug infestations occurring across the nation.

Unfortunately for you, most judges that currently preside over small claims courts came of age at a time when having bedbugs was a very rare thing due to the effectiveness of DDT. Most of those judges only know about bedbugs from what they have seen on television or heard by word of mouth. Many of them might wrongly equate having bedbugs to being similar to having fleas. Certainly, a nuisance, but not something that would render a dwelling uninhabitable. They simply don’t share your first-hand knowledge of just how psychologically damaging it is to suffer from bedbugs. Many of them are ignorant to your plight. Keep that in mind when deciding whether to retain legal counsel for your case.

The Perils of Establishing Causality; “Pre-Move in Inspections”.

Arguably, one of the most difficult obstacles you will face in your bedbug lawsuit is establishing causality of the bedbug infestation in your home. This can be especially difficult because studies have shown that the eggs of bedbugs can remain viable for months within vacant dwellings. Even a well-meaning landlord could unwittingly move a family into an apartment that had been empty for half a year and still find themselves picking up the tab later for removing bedbugs left behind by the previous tenants. In order to counter this many landlords have started employing a tactic that I call “preemptive inspections”. This is when a landlord hires a pest management professional (“PMP”) to inspect a rental property before renting it out.

Typically, a PMP will come out to a rental property with a flashlight and a magnifying glass and look around the baseboards and other likely bedbug hiding spots. After a half-hour inspection they will then sign off on a document certifying that they did, or did not, discover the presence of bedbugs on that particular day.
You should know that bedbug eggs are grayish-white in color, and are about the size of the lead tip of a pencil. They are also coated with a wet sticky enzyme when the female lays them. This means that she can place them vertically on walls, in between the cracks of door frames, behind electrical outlets and etcetera. In other words, even if you know what to look for it is nearly impossible to know with absolute certainty that there are no bedbug eggs hidden within any vacant property.

Despite that inherent flaw in those inspections, Judges nevertheless place a lot of weight on them. All judges love “official looking” documents. The more “official looking” those pre-move in certificates appear, the more likely judges are to deem them as credible. I’ve even seen one of these certificates that had a gold-colored seal near the signature where it had also been notarized. What you need to know is that by having a professional come out to look at the place before you moved in gives the landlord an escape for negligence. With that certificate in hand they can honestly tell the judge that they took reasonable precautions to ensure that they rented you a property they believed to be free of bedbugs. You may need an expert to refute the validity of that inspection certificate. Keep that in mind when deciding whether to retain legal counsel for your case.

Take advantage of your local health department or housing agency

Going back to my previous statement, “All judges love official looking documents”. This tendency for judges to rely heavily on documents that appear to be legitimate can also work to your advantage. Every county in the country has some organization that is responsible for ensuring the safety of rental properties. This may be an actual health department or even an agency that oversees the issuance of certificates or licenses to rent out properties to the public. These organizations are bureaucracies, and all bureaucracies have one thing in common; they all love to keep records. 

If you have bedbugs you should seek out your local version of the regulatory agency in your community. First, file your own complaint, and then ask them to provide you with documentation regarding any other complaints regarding your specific property.  Most of these agencies are compelled to release those documents because they are taxpayer funded. Going into court with official documents stating that there have been numerous previous complaints can seriously tip the scale of justice in your favor when attempting to establish the causality of bedbugs within your home. Keep that in mind when deciding whether to retain legal counsel for your case.

Always tell the truth regarding your case.

There is nothing worse than seeing a Plaintiff with a good case go down in flames because they lied to a judge. You need to accept that every case will have some bad facts. Maybe you rented some furniture from a Rent-to-Own place. The landlord might make an argument that you brought the bedbugs into the home when you rented that furniture. Maybe you reclaimed a couch that someone had previously thrown away near a dumpster. Perhaps you had bedbugs many years ago when you lived at another apartment. Whatever the case, you must always be honest with the judge at all times regarding your case. 

In fact, I have seen judges order partial damages in cases where the Plaintiff likely caused their bedbug infestation, but the landlords were clearly lying. Judges absolutely hate liars! One lie could potentially derail even the best case. Also, there are ways to minimize the release of potentially damaging facts without lying. Keep that in mind when deciding whether to retain legal counsel for your case.

 Disclaimer: This essay is for educational purposes only and not to be construed as specific legal advice. 

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