State supreme court upholds subsistence injury verdict

Posted: Thursday, October 18, 2001

BETHEL (AP) -- The Alaska Supreme Court has upheld a jury award to six Yupik women who said they were limited in the subsistence activities they could perform after a 1998 traffic accident.

None of the women were seriously injured when cab driver Jun Choi struck the back of their pickup truck at a Bethel intersection. But the women say they suffered back and neck pain that made it difficult for them to perform the physical work associated with subsistence, including picking berries and catching fish, said attorney Jim Valcarce, who represented five of the women.

Choi's taxi suffered minimal damage and none of the women sought medical treatment immediately after the accident. Choi's attorney acknowledged before going to trial in 1999, that the accident was due to Choi's negligence and offered the women $750 each to settle the case, according to court documents.

A Bethel jury awarded each of the women $75,000 in December 1999. With attorney's fees and interest the award now totals $600,000.

Three of the women -- Hazel Akerelrea of Scammon Bay, and Rita Angaiak and her daughter, Edna Angaiak, both of Tununak -- were passengers in the taxi. The other three -- Elena Alexie of Kwethluk, and Bethel residents Gloria Anvil and Anna Westdahl -- were in Anvil's pickup.

Choi's attorney's underestimated the importance of subsistence activities in offering the settlement, Valcarce said.

''This case was unusual because one of our biggest claims was for a loss of subsistence harvest and traditional activities,'' Valcarce said. Choi's attorneys appealed the verdict, arguing that a medical expert had not testified to the women's injuries.

The Supreme Court decided that testimony from a doctor was not needed to determine if the women had been injured in the accident. The Supreme Court upheld the lower court's ruling in September. The court last week declined a request by Choi's insurance company to reconsider its decision. ''You don't need a doctor to know you're hurt,'' Valcarce said.

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