In a decision that could have sweeping consequences for private companies that manage military housing, a jury has awarded more than $2 million to a Marine Corps family who sued their privatized military housing landlords over mold and other maintenance problems in their Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego home.
The family of Staff Sgt. Matthew Charvat alleged that their Gateway Village military housing, managed by San Diego Family Housing and Lincoln Military Property Management, had extensive water damage and elevated moisture levels that caused microbes and mold to grow, making them sick.
According to the complaint, the home "lacked effective waterproofing and weather protection," had deteriorating drywall, roof defects and rot, water damage and "visible microbial growth on the interior building components."
As a result, Charvat, his wife and their two children suffered a range of illnesses while living in the house for roughly a year, such as respiratory symptoms, wheezing, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, fatigue, dizziness and flu-like symptoms, according to court documents.
"As a consequence of the conduct and omissions by [San Diego Family Housing and Lincoln Military Property Management] ... the property made plaintiffs sick and has not been habitable or tenantable ... and remains uninhabitable and untenantable," the lawsuit charged.
Following a nearly month-long trial, a jury awarded the family $2 million, according to 10news.com in San Diego.
The award is the largest to a military family related to military housing issues, which came to light last year in an extensive investigation by the Reuters news agency. In 2016, another Marine Corps family received $350,000 in a similar lawsuit involving mold in their Norfolk, Virginia, home, which was managed by Mid-Atlantic Military Family Communities, also a subsidiary of Lincoln Military Housing.
Lincoln Military Housing plans to fight the $2 million Charvat ruling and, in a statement to Military.com, called the ruling "unjust." Officials said previous tenants of the house, at 2631 Tuscaloosa Street, Unit 2A6313, had not reported mold on the property and the Charvats "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 said. "When these residents did report a concern, LMH responded immediately and appropriately ... including retaining a third-party mold expert, and nothing was found."
LMH alleges that the Charvats vacated the property because they wanted to move into "the suburbs and a different school district."
They never cited "mold or illness as a reason for moving until they hired a lawyer," the statement charged.
In trial briefs, LMH maintained that the company responded to the Charvats' requests for inspections, maintenance and remediation.
While some families have voiced concerns over the health and safety of military housing since a privatization initiative began in 1996, issues came to a head earlier this year. News reports revealed lead contamination, mold, dangerous wiring and pestilence in some privately managed homes, and widespread complaints that management companies were unresponsive and failed to meet contractual obligations to provide safe, maintained houses.
In a survey released earlier this year by the nonprofit Military Family Advisory Network, more than 16,000 military family members reported dirty and unsafe conditions at more than 160 military installations.
Following several hearings on Capitol Hill in February, Pentagon leaders launched a series of initiatives to address the housing problems, to include creating a tenant bill of rights to give service members and their families more negotiating power with their landlords, inspecting homes and suspending some programs that provided incentives fees to housing companies.
Legislation also has been introduced that would allow installation commanders to retain a service member's basic allowance for housing payments to contractors until problems are resolved. Both the Senate and House versions of the National Defense Authorization Act contain a number of initiatives aimed at improving the health and safety of military housing. An agreement on the final version of the bill is expected this month.