Court upholds verdict in favor of Chefornak family

The Alaska Supreme Court has upheld a verdict of more than 3 million dollars for a Chefornak family.

According to the Opinion released on April 15th, 2022 by the Supreme Court of the State of Alaska, a boiler exploded in a home owned by a nonprofit regional housing authority, the AVCP Regional Housing Authority in Chefornak, Alaska. Dietrich Mael, who lived in the home was severely injured.

Mael sued the housing authority, claiming that his lease-purchase contract with the authority included a promise that it would inspect the boiler, which it had failed to do with reasonable care. He testified at trial that he continued to suffer from debilitating back pain which prevented him from working, playing with his children, or engaging in subsistence activities.

According to court documents, the housing authority argued that whether its duty was in contract or tort, the duty expired long before the boiler exploded. It concedes that the Agreement required regular inspections, but it contends that any duty it had by contract expired 25 years after the Maels moved in, when federal regulations made the home eligible for conveyance. The housing authority further contends that once it stopped its annual inspections, the Maels maintained and inspected the boiler themselves, indicating their understanding that the responsibility had shifted to them. However, the court agrees with the superior court’s conclusion that under the terms of the Agreement the housing authority retained the duty to inspect until the home was formally conveyed and the Maels were given legal title to it.

The jury returned a verdict in favor of the Maels at the end of the trial which took place in September 2019. It found that Dietrich Mael suffered a severe permanent physical impairment and awarded him $1,672,000 in economic damages and $1,580,000 in noneconomic damages, for a total award of $3,252,000. The jury also awarded a total of $175,000 to Dietrich’s family members on their claims for negligent infliction of emotional distress. Angstman Law Office represented the Mael’s in this case.

The housing authority appealed the Superior Court ruling. On April 15th, 2022 the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the Superior Court’s judgment.

The AVCP Regional Housing Authority released the following statement in response to the verdict.

“On April 15, 2022 AVCP RHA received a decision from the Alaska Supreme Court which clarifies the duties and obligations of the association under the federal home ownership program established by the 1937 Housing Act.

The AVCP region is home to 56 federally recognized tribes and serves all 48 communities in the Bethel and Kusilvak Census Areas.

Through the dedicated work of staff, AVCP RHA provides affordable housing opportunities and programs for the region including homeownership, rentals, rental vouchers, housing services and housing management.

While the region is remote and covers a large geographical area with many logistical challenges, AVCP RHA remains committed to providing high quality homes in their villages for their families, friends, and neighbors.”