Bed-bug lawyer questions Iowa’s elimination of routine hotel inspections

By: - October 14, 2022 5:30 am

Dustin Delehoy of Illinois (inset), stayed at the Lexington Inn in Ottumwa for four nights, in two different rooms, and left with bites and welts covering his body. He later sued the owners and the case was settled out of court. (Photos from Iowa District Court filings and from the Environmental Protection Agency)

On a Monday morning in June 2018, Jeffrey and Suzanne Hoover of Adair awoke in their hotel room to find what they later described as hundreds of bug bites on their bodies and faces.

It wasn’t the first time. For weeks, the couple had been staying off and on at the Super 8 in Adair due to the damage their house had sustained in a tornado. During that time, they had allegedly found welts on their bodies that they initially attributed to a poison ivy infection. They sought treatment at a medical clinic and VA hospital, and even made two trips to an emergency room.

On that Monday, however, the situation was reportedly far worse than before.

West Des Moines attorney Jeff Lipman. (Photo courtesy of the Lipman Law Firm)

“When the Hoovers woke up,” their West Des Moines attorney, Jeffrey Lipman, later stated in court filings, “they were both covered in bites and found themselves lying in a bed full of bed bugs … The infestation of bed bugs was so rampant and severe that even a cursory inspection would have revealed the infestation.”

Eventually, the Hoovers sued the Adair hotel for damages related to their medical expenses and the clothing and luggage they had to discard. After two years of litigation, the Super 8’s owner offered to settle the matter for $40,000. The case was dismissed a short time later.

Recently, the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals acknowledged that for the past eight years it has failed to comply with a state law that requires the agency to conduct routine inspections of every hotel in Iowa at least once every two years.

In 2014, the department says, it conducted an internal “risk assessment” and decided to stop conducting any routine inspections at hotels. Ever since then, the state agency has inspected Iowa’s 700 hotels and motels only when a complaint is filed or there’s a change in ownership.

Some of the 13 cities and counties that the state contracts with to perform various types of inspections have opted to continue with routine hotel inspections, but DIA, which has oversight of most of Iowa’s hotels, has not. To come back into compliance with the law, DIA plans to have the regulations changed to eliminate the legal requirement for routine inspections.

Lipman, a specialist in bed bug cases, says consumers aren’t well served by DIA’s decisions.

He says he understands that state inspectors don’t have the time or resources to perform thorough room-by-room inspections for bed bugs at all hotels while also enforcing other regulations unrelated to pests. But eliminating routine inspections isn’t the answer, he says.

Lipman says hotel inspectors should take an approach similar to that used by inspectors at health care facilities where regulators make annual checks to ensure all of the necessary policies and protocols are in place and that they are being followed.

“Are the hotels calling pest control companies immediately after a problem is reported?” Lipman asks. “Are they closing off the rooms? Are they performing treatments delivered by pest-control companies or are they self-treating, using their own staff?”

Jessica Dunker of the Iowa Hotel and Lodging Association. (Photo courtesy of the organization.)

Jessica Dunker of the Iowa Hotel and Lodging Association has said she’s “not aware of any specific health issues related to the hotel industry” in Iowa. And when asked about bed bugs, she told the Iowa Capital Dispatch, “Bed bugs, yeah, it’s a terrible inconvenience and you’re very unhappy,” but, she added, that’s more of a cleanliness issue than a health issue.

“That’s ignorance,” Lipman says of Dunker’s assessment. “Bed bugs don’t spread diseases, but they are considered a public health concern. They basically suck blood out of people and cause these massive welts, and sometimes people get skin irritations and scarring. I mean, these things come out, at times, 50 to 100 bugs at a time — and they start feeding on people, leaving these grotesque marks all over their bodies.

“And they have nothing to do with cleanliness. The Waldorf Astoria has had bed bugs … The bugs are attracted to the C02 in your breath and they are attracted by blood. They don’t want garbage. They want blood. Human blood. That’s what they are there for, and nothing else.”

He says the cases he handles are serious enough that the hotels’ housekeeping staff should have uncovered the infestations through regular inspections. Had that happened, and had management then taken those rooms, and those nearest to them, out of service, the injuries suffered by his clients could have been avoided, he says.

Ottumwa hotel sued over bed bugs

Part of the problem with complaint-driven inspections, Lipman says, is that by the time a complaint is made to the state, the damage has already been done. And if the hotel staff has already taken steps to eradicate bugs in the complaining guest’s room, by the time inspectors show up the bugs may have taken up residence in other rooms that are left uninspected.

“We will have hotels say, ‘Oh, we don’t have bed bugs,’ but then we have clients who have photos of bed bugs, and photos showing they’ve been bitten 50 times. And then DIA is saying, ‘We didn’t see any bed bugs.’”

Lipman says that in Iowa, it’s a simple misdemeanor for hotels to self-treat for bed bugs using chemicals, but some hotel operators will occasionally cut corners and try to avoid hiring a licensed exterminator.

He says there is now green technology that uses nontoxic chemicals to discourage bed bugs, but hotels with a history of infestations need to take a proactive approach and work on prevention as well as eradication. There aren’t enough hotels taking that step, Lipman says.

After the Lexington Inn & Suites in Ottumwa was sued over an alleged bed bug infestation, the owner, Belvant Patel, testified in depositions that he had no training in how to spot bed bugs, no training in eradication, and he handled treatment himself rather than use the company’s contracted exterminator.

He also testified that he maintained no records documenting which rooms had a history of infestations and no records pertaining to bed bug complaints.

One of the Lexington Inn’s guests, Dustin Delehoy, sued the hotel in September 2019. Delehoy alleged he stayed at the hotel over four days in April 2019 after traveling to Ottumwa from Illinois to attend some of his son’s baseball games.

After his first night in Room 218 at Lexington Suites, Delehoy allegedly awoke and noticed three bites on his hand. After his second night in the room, he allegedly awoke and found more bites on one arm and on his neck.

He showed the hotel staff the bites and asked for another room. He was then reassigned to a room across the hall but allegedly awoke the next day with more bites over most of his body – including his back, neck, arms, stomach and one foot. A manager said she’d speak to the owner about a refund which, Delehoy alleged, he never received.

Days later, Delehoy, later claimed, he visited a dermatologist to evaluate the bites and was prescribed a topical cream, prednisone and Benadryl.

Delehoy’s lawsuit against the hotel was settled out of court in July.

About bed bugs

Bed bugs have a lifespan of three months to one year, but can multiply rapidly since one female bug can lay 300 to 500 eggs in her lifetime. The bugs ingest blood as needed, consuming up to 8 milligrams during a single bite that can last up to 12 minutes.

When biting, the bugs deploy skin-piercing stylets in their mouth. The first stylet carries the bug’s saliva into the bite wound to prevent the blood from coagulating. The second stylet carries the blood from the human host into the bug.

The bugs don’t carry disease, and in most cases, the effect of bed bug bites are limited to skin irritation, itching that can last several days, and small, fluid-filled skin formations.

In many instances, the primary damage they inflict is financial. Because the bugs can be carried from hotels and other locations back to a person’s home, the victim may suffer losses related to extermination services, medical treatment and the loss of clothing, bedding or furniture that becomes infested.

Inspecting hotel rooms for bed bugs

The Environmental Protection Agency and Consumer Reports has these tips for hotel guests hoping to avoid issues with bed bugs:

Luggage: When you enter a hotel room for the first time, place your luggage on a raised luggage rack or in the bathroom, which is an unlikely place for bed bugs to hide, while you inspect the room. You may want to pack large plastic trash bags in which to stow your luggage during your stay.

Bedding: Pull back the bed sheets and blankets and check the mattress and box-spring seams for bugs, especially at the head of the bed. Adults, nymphs, and eggs are tiny, but are visible to the naked eye. Look for exoskeletons or “skins” and any dark, rust-colored spots on the bedding. Bed bugs, while tiny, can be seen by the naked eye. The bugs can also be smelled, with an odor sometimes described as a sickening-sweet raspberry smell.

Furniture: Check upholstered furniture within 20 feet of the bed, especially along the fabric seams.

Walls: Because the bugs are typically no larger than the width of a credit card, they may congregate along cracks and seams in headboard, baseboards and wall outlets that are within 20 feet of a bed.

Relocate: If you find signs of bed bugs, ask that you be moved to a new room — preferably in another area of the building. When you get home, tumble-dry your travel clothes in a hot dryer for up to 30 minutes.

Complaints: If you want to file a hotel-related complaint with the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals, go to: DIA Contact Form. From there, you can write a complaint describing the problem and upload any photos you took to support your complaint.

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.