Fort Yukon woman wins housing retrial

Posted: Thursday, May 02, 2002

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- A Superior Court jury has ruled in favor of a former Fort Yukon homeowner who charged her housing authority with being responsible for a 1995 house fire that caused the death of her 3-year-old son.

Jurors returned a verdict Wednesday in the retrial of Denise James' civil lawsuit against the Interior Regional Housing Authority. The case was largely decided in James' favor in a 1997 trial before it was overturned on appeal.

James' Fort Yukon home was destroyed by fire the morning of Feb. 12, 1995. James and her 2-year-old daughter, Raven, escaped through a bedroom window, but 3-year-old Chance Carlo was trapped in the home and died.

James had purchased the home through the Interior Regional Housing Authority. In 1996, she sued the IRHA, charging that the faulty design of the home led to the fire and to Chance's death.

In the 1997 jury trial, James' attorney Mike Stepovich called the dwelling a ''time bomb,'' arguing that the fire started in the furnace, which was located in the middle of the home. He argued that the furnace was too big for the home and was inadequately ventilated and also noted that the home only had one exit.

IRHA attorney Tracey Knutson contended that the fire actually began in James' bedroom and was unrelated to the furnace. There was also argument at trial over whether the IRHA was responsible for the upkeep of smoke detectors in the home.

The jury found that the IRHA had been 80 percent responsible for the fire and awarded James $480,000 in damages. The verdict was overturned when the Alaska Supreme Court sided with the IRHA's argument that the Mutual Help and Occupancy Agreement under which the home was acquired by James placed responsibility for maintenance and safety on the shoulders of the tenants.

That ruling led to the retrial. Because almost all matters were settled in the 1997 trial, the only remaining question to be answered in this one was whether or not the IRHA had assumed responsibility for the upkeep of the furnace, even though the agreement places this burden on the homeowner.

Stepovich contended that the housing agency had effectively assumed responsibility for James' heating when workers came in to modify the furnace in 1990 and when the agency arranged to have the furnace fixed in 1994 about four months before the fire.

The IRHA had never charged James for the work done on her furnace, except for a charge of less than $50 delivered to her address on Feb. 12, 1995 -- the day of the fire, Stepovich said.

Stepovich argued that, under such circumstances, the IRHA had stepped beyond the bounds of the contract, and James had thus been justified in believing it was responsible for the safety of the heating system. In her closing, Knutson argued that the agreement was ironclad and that Stepovich was only trying to confuse the jury.

''The contract language itself is extremely clear,'' Knutson said. ''She knew she was supposed to do maintenance and repair.''

Knutson said that both the initial modification and the IRHA's later contact with James were both allowed under the terms of the contract.

''They are saying that because a modification was done during the warranty period, she at some time came to rely on them,'' Knutson said.

Stepovich said he was pleased with the jury's verdict.

Knutson said she planned to appeal the verdict, saying that at no time during the trial were jurors able to get the entire story of the house fire all at once.

''We have to get a day where we can tell the entire story from front to back,'' she said.

She argued that jurors would have reached a different verdict had they been able to hear the whole story of the fire and asked to decide the entire case.

Juror comments after the trial seemed to underscore Knutson's arguments, with some saying that they would have liked more information and that they felt limited by the scope of the trial and the phrasing of the jury question.

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