For a solo practitioner or a small firm, finding your niche and making a name for yourself in that area is one of the best ways to grow a thriving practice. One man in Maryland has done that, in a rather odd way.
In fact, he has surprised no one as much as himself, now that he is becoming known as the "bed bug lawyer." Daniel Whitney will be the first to say, "I never thought I'd become known as the bed bug attorney."
As Whitney tells The Washington Post, his practice is thriving on bed bug lawsuits to the point where he is considering taking his phone number off the firm website. As the news of bed bug infestations not just in hotels, but apartment complexes and dorms spreads like the bugs themselves, people are increasingly turning to legal action to get some relief from the harm they say they suffer.
Despite the lawyer jokes at Whitney's expense (i.e. he's a new form of blood sucker) he tells The Post that: "These people need help."
The distress people feel when coping with bed bug infestations is real, and can have psychological effects as well as the physical allergic reactions and infections. University of Kentucky entomologist Michael Potter tells The Post he has a huge collection of letters and emails seeking help for bed bug infestations with the common refrain, "Please help - I'm losing my mind."
So if bed bugs are a serious problem like Daniel Whitney thinks they are, how does he address it in the legal forum? According to an article he wrote with co-author Melissa Graf for Toxics Law Reporter, the causes of action for bed bug claims against hotels or landlords are fairly straightforward. Whitney and Graf discuss claims for negligence, fraud, breach of the warranty of habitability, nuisance and more creatively, battery. There may also be applicable regulations or city ordinances that can provide a basis for claims.
A more sweeping statutory remedy may still be creeping through Congress. According to The Post, Representative G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) still hasn't given up on re-introducing the legislation that died last year in committee. Butterfield hopes the next session of the House will take "The Don't Let the Bed Bugs Bite Act of 2009" a bit more seriously. Silly name, Butterfield said, "but this is a very serious conversation."
Daniel Whitney certainly thinks so and the numbers from his plaintiffs' claims back it up. One suit, reports The Post, is looking for $400,000 in compensatory damages and $3.15 million in punitives. Others, like Christopher Robinette, a professor at Widener University School of Law in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, think the numbers are overblown. But Whitney has a suggestion for detractors, which he recently tried out on an insurance adjuster working for a defendant in one of his cases. He told The Post:
"I said, 'I'll tell you what - if you really want to have a sense what this case is worth, why don't you get a sleeping bag and spend a night in the apartment? But make sure when you wake up in the morning, you throw your sleeping bag away, because it might be infested with bedbugs or eggs.'"