Friday, May 19, 2017

Encino attorney looks to help little guy in bedbug compensation cases
By Shane Nelson
Daily Journal Staff Writer
Personal injury attorney Brian J. Virag has crafted a downright hair-raising description for the notorious bedbug.

“They are blood-sucking, vampire bugs,” explained Virag, an Encino lawyer who now focuses his entire practice on bedbug compensation.

“They only come out at night,” he continued, adding that females can lay up to 500 eggs in a lifetime. “And they’re about the size of an apple seed when fully grown.”

Virag has been handling bedbug cases exclusively for several years and won a $465,600 jury verdict May 10 for client Johnny Reynolds, a U.S. Army veteran who in 2013 suffered for nearly four months in a Pacoima apartment infested with the tiny pests.

Virag claims the award was the largest single-plaintiff bedbug verdict in California history.

“The worst part was I couldn’t sleep,” Reynolds recalled. “I was always looking out for bugs and thinking I saw them, [and eventually] I had to sleep in my car. I tried sleeping in my bathtub, out on the patio. I’d even spend one or two nights a week in a motel if I had the money.”

Virag estimated Reynolds was bitten as many as 1,000 times between May and August in 2013. A dermatologist who examined the plaintiff testified during trial that Reynolds likely suffered permanent scarring. Reynolds said he repeatedly sought help from his building’s on-site manager but got none — even after a visit from the health department.

“People thought I was dying because I was covered in welts,” Reynolds said, noting he had bites all over his back and between his fingers, toes and buttocks. “People were scared to be around me.”

Jeffrey W. Korn, who represented defendant 12300 Osborne Place LLC at trial, expressed his client’s “disappointment” over the verdict in an emailed statement, pointing out that an expert entomologist was permitted over objection to testify about psychological injury related to bedbug bites.

“This might be a subject upon which [the] defendant seeks post-verdict relief,” Korn wrote. “The jury foreperson discussed the case post-verdict and indicated emotional distress was the major component of the large noneconomic damages.” Reynolds v. 12300-12301 Osborne Place LLC, BC581802 (L.A. Super. Ct., filed May 14, 2015).

Regularly representing tenants in breach of habitability cases earlier in his career, Virag said hardship stories like Reynolds’ motivated him to pursue bedbug compensation work. After realizing other attorneys were not operating in the space, Virag thought he could help. Most of his clients are in low-income properties with “nowhere else to go and nowhere else to turn.”

“It’s tragic when people are exposed to bedbugs like this,” Virag said, “and people in positions of power, like landlords, refuse to do anything.”

Retired Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Enrique Romero, who first met Virag 15 years ago on unlawful detainer cases, described the attorney as “a true believer.” Now a neutral for ADR Services Inc., Romero has since handled several bedbug mediations with Virag and said he’s still passionate about clients facing tough odds.

“Brian’s still representing the little guy,” Romero said, “standing up for them against big landlords.”

Longtime personal injury litigator Gary A. Dordick, who has tried joint-venture personal injury and bedbug compensation cases with Virag over the last 10 years, said the Encino attorney is “tenacious.”

“When he started taking bedbug cases, he knew the cause was right, and his heart was in it,” Dordick said. “But I don’t think he realized how hard it was going to be to actually make money at it.”

According to Dordick, landlords and their insurance companies commonly take a “scorched-earth approach” to settlement negotiations in bedbug compensation matters.

“Unless Brian wanted to settle for next to nothing,” he said, “they were going to fight it all the way and try to bury him in paper.”

Virag said he’s only recently started to “break through” financially. He believes the $465,000 jury verdict, which featured $410,000 for pain and suffering, along with a March 7 $104,000 bedbug jury verdict in Bakersfield, suggest juries are becoming more sympathetic to anguish caused by bedbugs. Along with sleeplessness, torturous itching, and possible permanent scarring, Virag noted bedbug infestation victims often suffer from severe emotional distress.

“There’s a lot of fear, anxiety, humiliation and shame, because when people hear the word ‘bugs,’ they immediately think you’re dirty or unclean,” he said. “And you literally cannot have a social life, because you can’t invite people to your place for fear of them getting bedbugs. And you can’t go to other people’s homes for fear of transporting the bedbugs to them.”

Dordick said Virag’s work over the past six years, heading frequently to trial to showcase the physical, emotional and property wreckage bedbugs produce, may be altering how defense lawyers and insurance companies approach bedbug settlements.

“Unless you can punish them for making low offers, they are going to continue making low offers,” Dordick said. “Now that Brian has had a string of successful results, it’ll cause defendants to rethink their strategy.”

Romero agreed that Virag’s recent victories may lead defense attorneys to reassess bedbug strategies, because the doggedly resilient pests are generating larger pain and suffering compensations.

“Lawyers who handle these cases on behalf of property owners will see this,” Romero said in a phone interview about Virag’s recent verdicts. “And they have an obligation to advise their clients that there is a change of perception, and jurors are awarding larger sums.”

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