MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WBTW) — Trevor Eddy was the eighth lawyer a family approached after they were bitten by bed bugs on vacation.
Like the others, he initially wrote them off. Then, he quickly discovered that there’s no sight oversight or laws about bed bugs in hotels — or what businesses have to do in response to them.
Two years later, he’s handled 40 cases where clients have said they’ve been bitten by bed bugs.
“I wish this wasn’t an area of law that I have to practice,” Eddy said.
The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control does not respond to complaints about bed bugs in hotels, motels, homes, apartments, shelters, thrift stores or amusement parks, according to information the agency sent in response to a freedom of information request submitted by News13 about bed bug complaints in the Myrtle Beach area. When people make a complaint, they are referred to the Better Business Bureau, which Eddy said doesn’t lead to any results.
“That is not a dispute resolution mechanism,” Eddy said.
While travel review websites are sprinkled with visitors claiming they experienced bed bugs during their stays, there is no official agency that tracks complaints about bed bugs in the vacation lodging industry, and it is unknown just how often they are encountered in South Carolina’s hotels.
Bed bugs have seen a resurgence in the United States since the 1990s, according to the National Pest Management Association.
The bugs, which feed on blood while humans and animals sleep, are about the size of Abraham Lincoln’s head on a penny and can be resistant to pesticides.
The bugs aren’t known to spread disease, but scratching from itchy bites can increase the chances of developing a secondary skin infection, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The bugs can be dormant, and tend to hide during the day in places like mattress seams, headboards and behind wallpaper.
Eddy, whose Columbia law firm has represented cases against hotels in the Myrtle Beach area, said that litigation is the only real avenue that bitten visitors can pursue.
After being bit, he said that some clients are unable to stay in another hotel again.
“The mental effects that my clients can experience are very real, going from the relatively mild, to the physical sensation of bugs crawling over your skin,” Eddy said.
He said that the bugs can also target genitals, leading to scars from bites.
He said the majority of the cases were reported to hotel management, and that nothing was done. The bugs, Eddy said, could be easily spotted if rooms are checked by properly-trained staff.
“If my clients can find them, then the trained staff of the hotels should be finding these,” he said.
Almost all of his cases have been settled in mediation.
He’s not hopeful that any of them have made an impact on policy.
“My lawsuits are not enough to really make them change,” he said.
Hotels, he said, need to do better.
“Tourism is a huge part of the South Carolina economy, and hotels in South Carolina are allowing unchecked bed bugs and flea attacks on our paying tourists is a harm to an economy,” Eddy said. “It is an embarrassment.”
South Carolina Rep. Wendell Gilliard assumed his bill requiring hotels to inform visitors about bed bug infestations would sail through the legislature without issue.
Seven years later, it’s still hibernating in a subcommittee. But, Gilliard said, it might be time to revive it.
“That’s what I call one of those bills that you can’t forget,” he said.
H. 3143 was first filed in 2012 and remains in the Committee on Medical, Military, Public and Municipal Affairs after moving there in early 2013.
The bill would require hotels and similar businesses — along with charitable or emergency protective shelters — to “conspicuously post a notice of bedbug infestation in any guestroom in which there has been a bedbug infestation about which the owner, manager, or other responsible party is aware.”
Violators would be guilty of a misdemeanor and could face up to a $300 fine and/or be incarcerated for up to 60 days.
Gilliard said he filed the bill after hearing case after case from constituents who shared stories about experiencing bed bugs at hotels.
“So I said to myself, ‘There is something the state government needs to control,’” he said. “We can’t allow this.”
Gilliard envisioned the legislation eventually expanding to allow the state the right to perform inspections to enforce the law, be able to revoke a business’s license for violations and require businesses to hire an exterminator to eradicate the pests.
At the time, Gilliard said legislators were reluctant to talk about the issue. He said that’s changing.
South Carolina currently has no bed bug laws about the pests in hotels. Other state have varying types of legislation. In Alabama, guest rooms are required to be immediately closed from when an infestation is discovered to when the problem is abated. Kansas has classified the bugs as an “imminent health hazard.”
Creating bed bug regulation, Gilliard said, won’t damage the state’s hospitality industry.
“I think it would actually help it, because people are more health conscious than before,” he said.
He’s been waiting for the right time to resurrect the bill.
“The incidents are increasing, so why wouldn’t we want to move on it again?” Gilliard said.
A nuisance to businesses
Bed bug infestations aren’t unique to hotels, said Stephen Greene, the president and CEO of the Myrtle Beach Area Hospitality Association.
“Sometimes people attribute them to the lodging industry,” Greene said. “They are in hospitals, they are in nursing homes, they are in movie theaters, they are on cruise ships.”
Bed bugs have nothing to do with cleanliness, he said, are able to stay dormant and can hitchhike into rooms on suitcases.
“The next person checking in is your next opportunity for bed bugs,” Greene said.
Most hotels, he said, have contracts with pest control companies, spray for bed bugs and can have policies that include moving guests to a new room and having the infested room properly treated.
Those properties, though, can have different responses and plans depending on if they are a traditional hotel, are leased through a third-party company, are individually owned or aren’t run by an on-site management company.
Greene said it’s important that businesses have a plan in place for bed bugs.
The hospitality association has heard complaints about bed bugs, but Greene said they’ve also received calls about every type of issue visitors can experience. He said there’s also a “significant amount” of people who purposely bring dead bed bugs into hotels to try and get a free trip.
He doesn’t believe Myrtle Beach has a higher rate of bed bugs than anywhere else.
Greene said bed bugs can be tricky because they can hide, can be inactive for long periods of time and can be chemical-resistant to green cleaning products. He attributes the rise of bed bugs across the nation to efforts to be more environmentally conscious.
“It is because the industry is trying to reduce its environmental impact,” he said. “And, like everything else, what was eradicating these bed bugs in a manner was a very strong pesticide that was not exactly healthy.”
Although Greene said he could not comment about the association’s stance on any bed bug regulation because of how broad the possibilities are, he said that he would have questions about Gilliard’s notification bill if the law is proposed again. Greene questioned how the bill would be enforced — and who would be in charge of placing a notice up in a building where individually-owned units are rented out.
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