In July 2010, Adarien Jackson's 6-year-old son, Kaden, began complaining of itchy bumps on his ankles. They soon turned into a rash and spread to his back, behind his ear, and on his eyelid.
The child's pediatrician and dermatologists tried allergy drugs, diet changes, oils and oatmeal baths. But it wasn't until months later that Jackson discovered the cause of the problem. Kaden's twin brother, Kyler, began waking in the middle of the night, crying out, "Bugs are crawling on me!"
Jackson realized her sons' beds — which she had recently purchased from a furniture store in Elkridge — were teeming with bedbugs, according to a lawsuit she filed in Anne Arundel County in December 2010.
On Thursday, a jury ordered Calidad Furniture & Linen Inc., the store that sold Jackson a pair of wood-frame beds, to pay Jackson and her sons $225,000 for the ordeal. It is one of the largest bedbug liability judgments in the country.
Multimillion-dollar lawsuits over bedbugs have become increasingly common as infestations have spread across the country and victims seek to hold landlords, hotels and retailers responsible for their exterminator bills and mental anguish.
But a public judgment is rare in bedbug liability cases. Lawsuits seeking millions of dollars in damages have received publicity in recent years, such as several filed against the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York. But most fade away with confidential settlements.
Jackson had visited Calidad in June 2010, as she prepared to move into a home she had recently purchased from her mother in Severn, the lawsuit says. She picked out bunk beds, mattresses and bedding for her sons and had them delivered to the suburban two-story home.
Two men arrived at the house a week later, in a truck bearing the Calidad name. They assembled the beds side by side, according to the lawsuit. The mattresses were loosely wrapped in plastic, and Jackson asked the delivery men to leave the plastic on to protect the mattresses from the occasional bed-wetting incident, the lawsuit says.
Within weeks, Jackson took Kaden to a pediatrician, who didn't think the bumps and rashes on the child looked like insect bites. Concerned that it could be an allergic reaction from the plastic wrapping, Jackson removed it from the mattresses, the lawsuit says. The bumps began to spread up Kaden's legs and back, and he was given Benadryl and prednisone to treat what everyone thought was allergies.
Jackson once noticed a small brown insect on the floor of her sons' rooms while vacuuming but thought nothing of it. Once Kyler began complaining of crawling bugs, though, she became suspicious, the lawsuit says. She discovered the bugs at 2 a.m. one night in early October.
When Jackson and her mother later flipped the mattresses to inspect them, clumps of bedbugs were present on the underside and fell off, said Daniel Whitney, Jackson's lawyer.
Jackson could not be reached for comment Friday.
Calidad fought Jackson's claims, at first denying her a refund and then seeking to settle after the lawsuit had been filed, said Gary Huggins, a Frederick lawyer who previously represented Calidad.
After the store went out of business early this year, Huggins said, he and Calidad signed an agreement with Jackson, giving up any defense of the lawsuit and leaving the damages up to the jury. But last month, lawyers for Calidad's insurer moved onto the case.
They argued that the court filings Huggins and Calidad made admitting responsibility for the bedbugs were invalid, but a judge rejected the argument. Michael DeSantis, lawyer for the store's insurer, could not be reached for comment, nor could Salah Alaboura, president of Calidad.
A jury of six women deliberated for 30 minutes before finding in favor of Jackson.
Jackson had only sought $150,000 in damages. That an Anne Arundel County jury raised the stakes is rare, Whitney said. County juries are known for being conservative with damage awards, he said.
Jackson's award is the second-largest known to Whitney or Tom Campbell, an Alabama attorney who takes a large number of bedbug cases. In what is thought to be one of the largest judgments of bedbug liability, two siblings who sued a Motel 6 in Chicago were awarded $382,000 in 2002.
Campbell said he thinks part of the reason the bedbug "epidemic" persists is that few property owners, hoteliers and other targets of bedbug lawsuits are willing to spend the thousands of dollars it takes to eradicate the pests.
"They're more interested in getting rid of complainers than getting rid of bedbugs," Campbell said. "Until that attitude changes, those groups are just going to be spreading the problem rather than helping achieve a cure."
For their part, property owners and managers, schools, hospitals and retailers are being encouraged to be vigilant about bedbugs. The National Pest Management Association suggests retailers develop policies for regular inspections, and isolate and examine returned items, spokeswoman Missy Henriksen said.
In the meantime, the problem is creating plenty of business for lawyers like Whitney and Campbell.
"I'd rather see this problem cured than create an additional source of revenue for plaintiffs' lawyers like me," Campbell said.
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