Judge approves $2.45M bedbug settlement

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Ends legal battle against operators of 2 downtown buildings

By Christopher Pratt 

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A Polk County District Court judge Wednesday approved a $2.45 million class-action settlement against the operators of two downtown Des Moines apartment towers whose low-income and disabled residents endured an infestation of bedbugs.

The settlement’s approval marked the final chapter of a legal battle for about 225 people who live or once lived at Elsie Mason Manor and Ligutti Tower.

Sue Rogers, who was bitten by the bugs, said many people in the class action took pride in knowing they helped change the living conditions for other residents.

“We were never in it for the money,” Rogers said. “We just wanted (the bedbugs) out.”

Polk County District Judge Robert Blink on Wednesday approved the settlement between the class-action group and First Baptist Elderly Housing Foundation, First Baptist Housing Foundation and American Baptist Homes of the Midwest.

Residents, former residents and some family members of deceased former residents are expected to receive payments within seven to 10 days, said Jeff Lipman, one of the attorneys handling the group’s claim.

The amounts will range from about $200 to $11,000. Payouts will be determined by a matrix based on the amount of time people lived in the buildings between October 2007 and August 2013. Problems with bedbugs began in 2007.

As part of the settlement, the former owners made no admissions related to negligent conduct, but the class maintained its position that they were negligent.

With the aid of a team of law­yers, residents used a 2009 state law called the “Private Right of Action” to make their case. The law allows consumers to sue businesses that engage in deceptive practices, unfair practices or misrepresentation, or that fail to disclose material facts. Iowa was the last state in the U.S. to enact such a law. 

The residents’ legal fight has been through a gauntlet of proceedings since 2010. The lawsuit ended up at the Iowa Supreme Court, which had been asked to decertify the class-action status. The court deadlocked, which meant a lower court’s ruling allowing the class-action status stood. The case was settled before it went to trial. 

A group of about 10 residents, including Dusty Donaldson and Sue Rogers, shook hands and expressed relief outside the third-floor courtroom after the hearing. “I think that we accomplished something that we were committed to,” said Donaldson, who expects to receive about $7,000. “It’s going to help out; I’m only on Social Security.” Donaldson still has scars from the bites he received, he said. 

David Zwickey, CEO and president of American Baptist Homes of the Midwest and John Bloem, chairman of the First Baptist Elderly Housing Foundation, testified during the hearing that the settlement was fair, reasonable and adequate. They were not asked to discuss how or why the infestation occurred. They primarily talked about the finances of their organizations. 

After the hearing, Bloem said that he was pleased that the legal case was done. “We maintained that we were doing right from the start what was recommended,” he said. 

The bedbugs were probably brought to the facilities when tenants moved in, Bloem said. 

Developer Frank Levy assumed control of the properties last year and has implemented a strict system for monitoring the pests. The buildings are being renovated. 

Lipman, the attorney, said it’s likely the settlement will make other landlords act quickly at the first sight of bedbugs. “The message is that if you do not take this problem seriously, then the landlord is going to be held accountable,” he said after the hearing. 

Some of the $2.45 million will be put into a fund to assist legal groups who aid the indigent. 

Blink also approved $1.6 million for attorney fees.