This story was updated to reflect the amount of money the family requested.
A jury in San Diego has awarded a Marine Corps family more than $2 million in connection with mold contamination and other issues in their residence in a military privatized housing community.
Staff Sgt. Matthew Charvat, his wife and two children alleged that San Diego Family Housing and Lincoln Military Property Management were negligent in addressing a number of problems in their residence in Gateway Village, including “visible microbial growth and contamination,” water damage, elevated levels of moisture inside the home, deteriorated and crumbling drywall, defective appliances, and a “horrible, musty odor throughout the interior living spaces.”
The Charvats alleged the conditions of their house caused sickness in all the family members, with wide range of symptoms such as congestion, vomiting, diarrhea, fatigue, itchy skin, tightness in chest, dizziness, excessive headaches, wheezing, and other problems. They sought medical care from multiple doctors.
The story was first reported by 10news.com in San Diego.
The case could have broader implications for other military families who have reported problems with their housing. “I think we’re going to be seeing more of this. Based on the families who are reaching out to me, I have a sense there will be a number of class action lawsuits,” said Darlena Brown, an Army wife who is founder and president of the Military Housing Advocacy Network.
This is the largest known verdict related to alleged mold contamination in military housing. In 2016, a Marine family in Norfolk was awarded $350,000 in a mold-related lawsuit, also against a subsidiary of Lincoln Military Housing. There is at least one other case pending, against the Hunt Southern Group, alleging problems because of mold in housing at Keesler Air Force Base.
In the Charvat case, the jury in San Diego Superior Court reached the verdict Sept. 5, awarding the family what they asked for, following a trial that lasted about 3 ½ weeks. The bulk of the jury award to the Charvat family included $500,000 to each of the family members for pain and suffering and emotional distress, said Matt Poelstra, attorney for the family. They were awarded an additional $45,235 for expenses, including medical bills for three of the family members, rent, property damage, moving expenses and other out-of-pocket expenses.
Lincoln Military Housing will appeal the ruling, according to a statement provided to Military Times by company officials, who described the ruling as “unjust” and said the “allegations in the case are refuted by the facts.
“There were never any reports of mold in this property from previous tenants, and both [Lincoln Military Housing] and these residents certified there was no mold when they moved in. These residents also reported no mold for nine of the 11 months they lived in the home,” officials stated.
The Charvats moved in to their townhome at 2631 Tuscaloosa St., Unit 26313, in the Gateway Village community in San Diego at the end of April, 2015. They moved out on April 7, 2016, because of their concerns about the health risks to the family. At the time they lived there, the children were ages 3 and 6. Matthew Charvat was stationed at the Marine Corp Recruit Depot; he’s now at Fort Dix, New Jersey.
In early 2016, the family began to feel ill, and suspected it might be because of their home, according to the lawsuit. They discovered microbial growth inside their home, and found roof damage and exterior damage to the townhome, which was built in 2005.
The Charvat family filed their lawsuit in January, 2018, before the widespread problems with military housing came to light. A number of military families in various housing communities around the country have raised concerns about problems such as black mold, lead paint, faulty wiring, poor water quality and a variety of other problems, such as vermin in their homes. They’ve reported frustrations in getting their landlords – privatized housing companies – to address their problems.
Following testimony by spouses on Capitol Hill, military leaders have been digging in to determine the extent of the problem, and have been working on measures to address immediate and systemic problems. House and Senate lawmakers have also included sweeping changes in their versions of the defense authorization bill to provide more government oversight of the privatized housing companies, and more advocacy and protections for the families. Lawmakers are negotiating on the final version of those changes.
The Charvats alleged that San Diego Family Housing and Lincoln Military Property Management didn’t perform the required maintenance, operations, repair and oversight of the property, and failed to repair the damage and deterioration . The family specifically requested that their landlords address moisture issues, indoor air issues, mold growth in all vents on the first and second floor, the exterior wall staining, and roof damage. But there was no proper timely investigation or repair of the problems or repairs, they alleged in the lawsuit.
Although the property management company attempted to clean the heating, ventilation and air conditioning ducts, “that work was not done properly and water damage remained in the HVAC closet. Mold growth was discovered in and around the HVAC registers even after it was supposedly ‘cleaned,’ “ the lawsuit alleged.
While the Charvat family contends that their Lincoln landlord saw the mold and attempted to cover it up, Lincoln countered that they immediately investigated the issues of potential mold and sickness starting in January, 2016 with the first complaints, and again in February. Lincoln stated they responded to the call within 30 minutes when the Charvats found mold on some vent covers, but the Charvats asked for an appointment two days later, instead of an immediate inspection. Lincoln contended it never saw mold on the grills by the time they were allowed into the property. But they did hire an outside contractor to clean the HVAC ducts and vents on Feb. 16, 2016.
“When these residents did report a concern, [Lincoln Military Housing] responded immediately and appropriately,” according to the statement provided by Lincoln officials. “LMH followed every best practice and protocol – including retaining a third party mold expert – and nothing was found. Furthermore, these residents said they vacated the property because they wanted to move to the suburbs and a different school district, never citing mold or illness as a reason for moving until they hired a lawyer.
Although some of the family’s health problems lingered for a few months after moving out the property, they noticed a significant improvement after leaving, Poelstra said. “They have now been out of the property for three years and their health problems have resolved.”
The family paid for testing of the air quality of their home, and mold was found in multiple areas of the residence. One report noted that the air quality and environment in the living room where the air sample was taken is “poor quality and unhealthy,” according to a court document, quoting the report. “It is suggested the occupants stay out of the area tested or move out until the mold issue is resolved,” according to the lawsuit’s quoting of the report.
The family requested $2 million in compensation -- $500,000 for each of the four family members -- for pain and suffering, emotional distress and loss of quality of life, which they were awarded, as well as an additional $45,235 for the moving, medical and other expenses.. The judge did not allow punitive damages claims to be submitted to the jury.
As part of the military family housing privatization initiative which began in 1996, the services entered into contracts with private companies to take over most of their family housing in the U.S., and the companies invested money into renovating and replacing dilapidated housing that had suffered from years of lack of upkeep.
It was a problem that DoD officials said would otherwise have taken 30 years and $16 billion of taxpayer dollars to fix. The companies’ income comes from service members’ housing allowance – and from incentive fees paid by the services.
Following her own family’s experience, where her son was poisoned by lead-based paint in military housing, Darlena Brown sued the company, and it was settled out of court. “It was a disheartening experience. I didn’t have the power of public opinion behind me.” She said her case was held up by the company’s contention that her family couldn’t sue because of the Feres Doctrine, which prohibits service members from seeking compensation for illness or injury suffered as a result of negligence on the part of the military. In her case, Brown said, the federal judge determined that the Feres Doctrine didn’t apply to the privatized housing company.
“Hopefully going forward, military families will have the benefit of being able to take their case to court," Brown said. "It’s my hope families will get justice, because of the conditions they’ve had to live with.”
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.