As Margarita Fuentes and her four children settled down for bed each night, they tried preparing themselves for the hours to come.
Getting to sleep wasn’t easy; they knew from prior nights they would awake with dozens of bites from the bed bugs infesting their home.
Management at Foothill Vista Apartments, a low-income housing complex east of Fairfax Road and south of Niles Street, told Fuentes it was her responsibility to pay to have the bugs eradicated. But Fuentes couldn’t afford to pay the hundreds of dollars for pest control to deal with the problem. She could barely make rent.
She and her children lived with the pests as she repeatedly asked Pioneer Street Associates, owner of the complex, for help. Several months — and hundreds of bites — later, the Fuentes family moved to a relative’s home, but not before tossing out most of their bug-infested belongings.
Fuentes sued. On Tuesday, a Kern County jury awarded her a total of $104,000, including $40,000 in punitive damages.
The suit alleged Pioneer Street Associates rendered the property uninhabitable by failing to maintain pest control and accused it of negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress, among other allegations.
According to the suit, the Fuentes family dealt with bed bugs, mold and other “deplorable conditions.” They suffered medical problems and incurred expenses as a result of illnesses related to living in the complex, the suit said.
Fuentes’ Encino-based attorney, Brian Virag, said he was thrilled for her and her children following the 14-day trial.
“This was avoidable, but sometimes you just have to put it in front of 12 men and women from the community in order for them to make the decision, and that is what was done in this particular case,” Virag said.
David A. Belofsky, attorney for Pioneer Street Associates, did not return calls seeking comment.
Fuentes and her children, who at the time ranged in age from 4 months to 9 years, moved into the house in April 2012. She noticed the bugs about two months later.
Lying awake one night, she saw them crawling on her children, she said Friday. Unsure of what they were, she spent the night online and determined they were bed bugs, which are notoriously difficult to exterminate.
She asked property management for help, but they told her she would have to pay $150 per room to get the house treated, Fuentes said. It wasn’t until Virag sent a letter to management in August that the company sprayed for the bugs.
Fuentes, however, said she believes they only sprayed one room, which wouldn’t get rid of the problem. And sprays are widely recognized as being ineffective in eradicating bed bugs in a single treatment.
The pests, which can go for months without feeding, hide in furniture, under carpets, in wall sockets and other hard to reach areas. Multiple treatments are usually needed.
One surefire way to kill them is extreme heat. Virag said sealing an apartment and raising the temperature to 125 degrees will kill the pests. Also, tenting and fumigating the affected building can work.
Otherwise, the bugs will be snacking on inhabitants at will, as Fuentes discovered. In the months following the single treatment, she and her children continued to get bit.
They have scarring on their bodies in the form of tiny faded dots from being bitten so many times, Fuentes said.
Management blamed her for the bugs, but it was documented that her neighbor, with whom she shared a wall, had previously reported a bed bug infestation, Fuentes said.
She’s happy with the resolution, but said it doesn’t make up for what her family went through.
“To this day, the kids have issues with nightmares and sleep with the lights on,” she said.