Don’t Let the Bedbugs Bite!

A recent report on the discovery of body lice in Edmonton’s homeless population is a reminder of the daily challenges faced by low-income individuals.  While body lice appears to be primarily a problem for those without homes, even those who have the benefit of housing can experience major disruptions in their lives because of infestations of bedbugs and other pests in their residential premises.  It is therefore a good time to consider how residential tenancies law in Alberta applies in these types of situations.

Prior to looking at what the law is and how it applies in this situation, a few comments on the problems associated with researching in this area and on the value of precedents are appropriate.

One of the challenges of assisting clients with residential tenancies problems is the dearth of a well-developed case law in the area.  There are many reasons for this, but the most obvious is that disputes between landlords and tenants tend to involve a very low amount of money (at least in the context of modern litigation; low-income individuals have a different view of the value to them of even a few hundred dollars or less).  As a result, few cases are adjudicated in forums where written reasons are routinely issued.  While transcripts of oral judgments from the Provincial Court and the Residential Tenancies Dispute Resolution Service (“RTDRS”) may be obtained, the costs of producing these transcripts make research difficult and expensive.  As a consequence, there are limited precedents that are practically available when advocating for clients.

As a result, a decision from the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench that clarifies an aspect of residential tenancies law is welcomed among those who practice in the area.

The case of Boardwalk Rental Communities v. Ravine, 2009 ABQB 534 is an example of such a decision.  While the Honourable Madam Justice J.B. Veit’s reasons for judgment in this case did not necessarily plough any new legal ground, they clarified the law of rent abatement in the context of a bedbug situation and established a very useful precedent for those who normally act for low-income tenants.

The Ravine case is an appeal from the decision of a Tenancy Dispute Officer (“TDO”) of the RTDRS).  The landlord appealed the TDO’s decision to award the tenant rent abatement for half a month ($513.06), damages associated with obtaining alternative accommodations ($225.00), and laundry expenses ($150.00).  All of these damages arose because the tenant felt she had no other option but to remove herself and her children from the residential premises because of an infestation of bedbugs.

In coming to her decision at the RTDRS hearing, the TDO made the following comments:

So I’ve heard the evidence from the parties, and this is a case where I believe both of the parties did act reasonably. I’m not finding that there was any substantial breach by either party. I do think both sides acted responsibly and reasonably.

While I am going to make a judgment in favour of the tenant, I am not finding that the landlord was negligent or their actions were improper in this case. The tenant may have perhaps overreacted initially on finding insects and her children being bitten, but with small children in the house, I do believe that her actions in trying to get them out of the apartment until she could be confident that the issue was resolved was a reasonable and responsible thing to do. You know, and I can’t fault the tenant as well for trying to remedy the matters herself until some further action could be taken.

The landlord, however, I think, acted promptly and reasonably. I’m not sure that the landlord could have done anything much more quickly. There were scheduling difficulties. That’s, unfortunately, a fact of life. I think the landlord did act reasonably in trying to take action as soon as you notified them of the issue. The fact that they weren’t able to do anything for two weeks I don’t think can lead to a decision that the landlord was negligent or acted improperly. However, it did leave you in a situation where you had to put up with this for a further length of time.

On appeal, the landlord argued that the TDO had erred in law in awarding damages in the absence of a finding of a substantial breach of the Residential Tenancies Act or negligence by the landlord.

The Court denied the appeal and upheld the damages award.  Veit J. reasoned that the TDO had made a clear finding that the bedbug infestation caused the tenant to leave the premises for two weeks, and that this was a breach of the landlord’s obligation to provide peaceful enjoyment, which justified the award of abatement of rent and damages.

The Court agreed with the tenant that the Ontario  decision of Bramar Holdings Inc. v. Deseron, 1996 CarswellOnt 1185, 1 R.P.R. (3d) 287 was applicable.  In that case, the Court found that although the landlord in that case had not acted negligently when a flood occurred in the tenant’s premises, and had acted reasonably in responding to the situation, the landlord had breached its covenant to provide quiet enjoyment to the tenant.  As a result, the tenant was entitled to rent abatement.

The Court also reviewed some of the limited case law involving bedbug situations (three cases from Nova Scotia, Ontario, and Manitoba), and made the following comments (at para. 21):

  • The problem of bedbugs is treated in the case law as a matter of degree.
  • While a tenant is entitled to an abatement of rent and perhaps damages while the landlord is making reasonable attempts to deal with the problem, the tenant will not necessarily be able to terminate the tenancy on that basis.
  • Only in the most serious situations of infestation that cannot be dealt with promptly, or where the landlord refuses to act reasonably will bedbugs provide a basis for the termination of the tenancy.

The Court’s analysis in this case is consistent with the basic principles of contract law and the Residential Tenancies Act, which governs residential tenancies agreements.  Peaceful enjoyment is central to the residential tenancy contract, and when this is not being provided, the tenant should not be required to pay full rent for receiving less than what was bargained for.

As previously mentioned, none of the principles stated in the case are novel ones in the context of residential tenancies law.  However, prior to this case, in the absence of a clear and binding precedent in Alberta that applied these principles in a situation of a bedbug infestation, it was difficult to convince landlords of their obligations to tenants in these situations, and on some occasions, it was difficult to get TDOs at the RTDRS to enforce those obligations.  For those reasons, the Ravine case is a very welcome precedent indeed.

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About Tim Patterson

Tim Patterson is a staff lawyer at the Edmonton Community Legal Centre where he serves low income clients. His primary areas of practice are housing, employment, and other areas of civil litigation. After graduating with an B.A. and LL.B. from the University of Alberta, he was called to the Alberta Bar in 2002, and practiced at a large law firm in Edmonton before moving to the ECLC. In his current practice setting, Tim has been able to pursue his interest in improving access to justice for those living with poverty.
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