CHESTER-A Chester couple are suing their landlord for his alleged unwillingness to correct a bedbug infestation in their two-bedroom apartment.
Antonio Ponziani Sr. and his wife, Heather, filed suit Tuesday in Hancock County Circuit Court against John and Vicki Adkins, of Chester. New Cumberland attorney Lawrence Manypenny is representing the Ponzianis and their two young sons.
The lawsuit accuses the Adkinses of negligence, fraud and failing to maintain the apartment in a "fit and habitable" condition. It seeks breach-of-contract damages in the amount of $200,000, punitive damages in the amount of $400,000, and compensation for medical bills totalling $2,500.
The Ponzianis have been dealing with the bedbugs for almost the entire time they have lived at Riverside Apartments, 224 Ferry Road, Chester, Antonio Ponziani said in an interview prior to the lawsuit being filed. They moved into Apt. 38 in October 2012 and pay $400 a month in rent with the help of federal housing assistance.
"We're just fed up. We've got to get out of here," Ponziani said.
The lawsuit said the family members have been bitten by bedbugs "thousands of times" and every day for 333 days. The bites have resulted in allergic reactions that have required medical treatment, it said. The couple's 2-year-old son, Isiah, has been taken to the emergency room three times because of allergic reactions to the bites, the lawsuit said.
The couple have found bedbugs in their refrigerator, cupboards, personal property and food, the lawsuit said. They have removed bedbugs from their hair and from the children's diapers, the lawsuit said. Bedbugs also came out of walls, drains and floors, according to the lawsuit.
"This is just a terrible, terrible situation," Manypenny said. "It is awful."
As a result of the infestation, the Ponzianis have had to dispose of $16,510 worth of personal belongings, including beds, furniture, bedding and linens, the lawsuit said.
"They have nothing left. When they leave there, they'll leave with nothing," Manypenny said.
John Adkins could not be reached for comment on Tuesday but said in a previous interview that he was doing all he could do despite what he characterized as a lack of cooperation from his tenants.
"Unless they work with us, there's nothing we can do," he said.
Adkins said the Ponzianis failed to prepare properly for a series of treatments by an exterminator in June and July, and declined a follow-up inspection earlier this month.
But the lawsuit said that the treatments have "utterly failed" and would not succeed unless the whole apartment complex is treated.
Manypenny said the civil action filed on Tuesday may become a class action lawsuit if he can add other residents as plaintiffs. "Several other units have had the same problem as my clients'," he said.
The lawsuit accuses the Adkinses of violating West Virginia law by failing to maintain a "fit and habitable" dwelling unit. It also accuses them of negligence for allegedly failing to treat the infestation and of fraud for allegedly telling the Ponzianis that the unit was free of infestation.
In July, Manypenny sent Adkins a letter asking the landlord to pay his client $58,000 as compensation for lost property, medical expenses and "loss of enjoyment of life, annoyance, inconvenience, nuisance (and) anxiety."
Adkins forwarded the letter to his insurance company, which responded to Manypenny with a letter dated Aug. 22. The letter avers that the infestation was the result of the Ponzianis taking an already-infested sofa from a neighbor into their apartment.
"Your clients assumed a risk by bringing the sofa into their residence," the letter said.
The insurance company said it was willing to consider paying the family's medical expenses as long as they provided the necessary documentation.
Hancock County Health Department Administrator Jackie Huff said she stressed the importance of a professional exterminator to both Antonio Ponziani and John Adkins. She said the health department has little authority in such cases because the infestation is limited to the apartment complex and, therefore, not a public health threat.
"The jurisdiction it falls under is the Landlord-Tenant Act," Huff said. "We did call the landlord, and he informed us that he had an exterminator there and was taking care of the problem."