DES MOINES, Iowa — Hundreds of residents from two Des Moines apartment buildings may move forward with a class-action lawsuit over a bedbug infestation in what may be one of the nation's first class-action cases against apartment owners and managers regarding damages from bedbugs.
The Iowa Supreme Court said Friday it was deadlocked, which means Polk County Judge Joel Novak's 2011 ruling certifying class-action status stands because of an Iowa law that says when the Supreme Court is equally divided in opinion, the judgment of a lower court stands affirmed.
Siding with Novak were Justices David Wiggins, Daryl Hecht, and Bruce Zager. Justices Mark Cady, Thomas Waterman, and Edward Mansfield voted to reverse it. Justice Brent Appel did not participate in the decision.
The lawsuit alleges violations of Iowa's consumer protection law and says the apartment managers assured tenants that the apartments were habitable despite knowing of the bedbug problem. Court documents indicate the residents say their apartments have had bedbugs for years and they have been bitten, scarred and deprived of sleep.
Jeffrey Lipman, an attorney representing many of the elderly tenants in the two apartment buildings, said the number of residents to be included in the class-action suit will likely exceed 300.
"We are very happy for the tenants," he said. The court's order means each person will not be forced to go to trial with their own attorney and expert witnesses.
During oral arguments, the attorneys and the justices said they could find no other cases in the United States in which a bedbug case was certified as a class-action lawsuit against apartment building owners or managers. Attorney Kevin Driscoll, who argued before the Iowa Supreme Court for Minnesota-based building manager American Baptist Homes of the Midwest in February, said allowing the case to move forward would open "the proverbial floodgates" for such lawsuits.
In 2010, residents of Elsie Mason Manor and Liguitti Tower sued building owner Johnston-based First Baptist Housing Foundation, and American Baptist Homes of the Midwest.
The building's owners and managers wanted the court to throw out class-action certification, saying not all of the residents could prove that they had bedbugs in their apartments.
"One tenant's experience with bedbugs is not representative of the remaining class so that's where we think the analysis breaks down and the ruling (by Novak) was an abuse of discretion to permit this generalized evidence," Driscoll said in February.
The attorney for First Baptist Housing, Tom Joensen, said Friday he couldn't comment on the details of an ongoing case.
"We thank the Iowa Supreme Court. It's done its job again to provide us with the law of the case and because of the ruling the litigation moves forward on the merits and unfortunately we can't comment on that as much as we want to," he said.
The lawsuit now goes back to Polk County District Court for trial.
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