SAN DIEGO (KGTV) -- Several San Diego area families are suing a government contractor that provides housing to military members and their families.
The lawsuits filed against Lincoln Property Management and San Diego Family Housing claim their military housing was unsafe, saying it had microbial contamination and other substandard conditions.
"These families are the families of active duty service members," said attorney Jessica Sizemore-Wetzel. "They are here to protect the safety and sanctity of our country. The last thing they need to be worried about is the safety and sanctity of their own homes."
The Huffman family moved to San Diego in 2016. Matt is a staff sergeant in the Marines.
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"We were nervous when first coming out here, the cost of living and everything, so we decided to go with base housing," said April Huffman.
She said at the end of 2018, they moved to a community in the Tierrasanta area run by the private government contractor Lincoln Military Housing.
April Huffman said within a week of moving in, two of her sons got sick.
"These two started having a really bad cold or something coming on," she said.
Those cold-like symptoms didn't go away, and for one of her boys things got much worse.
Logan had trouble breathing and ended up in the hospital. It was a sight his dad could barely handle.
"I was sitting there watching him in the hospital bed struggling and having a hard time reacting to the medication that they were doing," Matt Huffman said.
With no answers about why the kids were getting sick, the family said they called in a company to run air tests and swabs.
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"It came back with several different toxic molds," April said.
They say they contacted the housing management company, Lincoln, to let them know, but things didn't go smoothly.
According to a lawsuit the family filed against San Diego Family Housing and Lincoln Military Property Management, the Huffmans "repeatedly notified the defendants of these multiple defects in a timely manner; however, Defendants took no action to properly or time repair them and/or improperly attempted repairs resulting in further contamination, adding to the uninhabitability of the Subject property and making it untenantable and substandard."
"It took us demanding and getting his command involved to get them to displace us so that we could leave the home," she said. "So we went and left the home and lived in a hotel for about three months."
The Huffmans said the company eventually pulled different parts of the house apart.
According to their lawsuit, it was discovered there were multiple defects and problems with the home, such as vents contaminated with microbial spores, visible microbial growth in kitchen and bathrooms, an odor throughout the interior living spaces, and elevated moisture levels.
The lawsuit claims, "As a direct and proximate result of Defendant's negligence and wrongful conduct, resulting in uninhabitable, substandard and contaminated Subject Property and indoor environment, as alleged herein, Plaintiffs were injured in health, strength, and activity, sustaining injury to their bodies."
"This family was exposed to microbial spores and water intrusion in their home, which caused them health issues including respiratory issues, asthma, skin rashes, headaches, nosebleeds, and things like that," said Sizemore-Wetzel.
In court filings, the two companies have denied all allegations.
A spokesperson for Lincoln couldn't comment on the Huffman's lawsuit.
In a statement the spokesperson wrote in part, "Lincoln Military Housing (LMH) is fully committed to ensuring our residents live in a safe and healthy environment every day, and we thoroughly investigate all resident concerns, including those related to water intrusion or mold, to ensure that they are immediately and appropriately addressed. LMH has industry-leading water intrusion and mold management practices and protocols in place, developed pursuant to our partnership with the U.S. Navy, and we treat all reports of water intrusion or mold as an emergency request with the goal that our trained technicians make contact with the resident within 30 minutes. If water intrusion or suspected mold is found in a home, we promptly remediate it, and will enlist the support of licensed contractors and third-party microbial experts as necessary. Upon completion of any required work, and to ensure the issue has been properly remediated, it is LMH's standard practice to perform multiple follow-up visits with our residents to ensure that all issues and resident concerns have been resolved in a satisfactory manner."
It's not just the Huffman's that have filed lawsuits against Lincoln Military Housing or its San Diego area subsidiaries.
Team 10 discovered at least seven lawsuits in the San Diego area that claim microbial spores or mold in military housing that's run by Lincoln, one of its subsidiaries or affiliated companies.
In a 2019 lawsuit, the Clover family alleged, "Defendants breached their legal duty to Plaintiffs by negligently, improperly, recklessly, and in a non-controlled manner, exposing Plaintiffs to excessive moisture, dampness, and humidity, as well as microbial contamination."
Lawyers representing the family provided Team 10 pictures that showed a rash on their son that was alleged to be from exposure to mold.
They claim Lincoln Military Housing failed to provide or maintain a reasonably habitable environment.
In that case, Lincoln and the other subsidiaries listed in the lawsuit as defendants also denied the allegations.
Lincoln's legal team asked the case to be thrown out, claiming, "As government contractors acting within the scope of Congressionally-delegated authority, they are entitled to derivative immunity."
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The Government, who is not part of the case, chimed on that legal argument.
They submitted a statement of interest to the court saying, the contractors “are not entitled to any immunities or privileges derived from their relationship with the United States. Defendants' attempt to utilize a ‘derivative sovereign immunity’ defense is not only legally incorrect and factually inapplicable, but also raises serious policy concerns for future military housing disputes, military branches' relationships with managing members of public/private entities, and the military's readiness when individual members and their families may be living under inadequate housing conditions."
Previous Court Decision
In 2019 a Marine Corps family won a $2 million lawsuit against Lincoln Military Housing after they say mold made their children sick.
The Charvat family moved to San Diego's military housing near the Marine Corps Recruitment Depot (MRDC) in April 2015. Father and husband Matthew Charvat worked at MCRD.
Their lawsuit claimed symptoms including "diarrhea, dizziness, drowsiness, irritated eyes, watery eyes, fatigue, stuffy nose, sinus congestion, itchy skin, sneezing, sore and dry throat, chest tightness, runny nose, lethargy."
They claimed Lincoln Military Housing "negligently, improperly, recklessly and in a non-controlled manner, exposing Plaintiffs to excessive moisture, dampness, and humidity, as well as microbial contamination."
Shortly after the decision, Lincoln appealed.
The court agreed with the family about medical expenses and left that decision in place.
However, the judge ordered a new trial over the issue of money for pain and suffering and past emotional distress.
Court records show, "Following argument on the matters, the Court granted the Defendants' Motion for a New Trial on the issue of damages for past pain and suffering and past emotional distress only."
According to the court notes the judge decided, "The $500,000 awarded to each of the four plaintiffs for past pain and suffering and past emotional distress is excessive."
An attorney for the family tells Team 10 they’ve appealed the judges decision and court records show a status conference hearing is set for September.
Complaints from residents are nothing new for government contractors that run military housing.
In 2019 the heads of five different companies, including the then-president of Lincoln Military Housing Jarl Bliss, testified before Congress on the Current Condition of the Military Housing Privatization Initiative.
In a statement to the committee, Mr. Bliss said, "The men and women of LMH (Lincoln Military Housing) work every day to serve all of our families with honor and integrity."
Senators grilled the men about housing conditions and complaints.
New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand asked, "How many military children deserve to be exposed to mold, lead or other health hazards as a consequence of living in a privatized hosing." All of the men responded “Zero,” including Mr. Bliss, who said, "I agree, Senator. Zero."
In written testimony to Congress, Mr. Bliss stated, "While LMH is proud of our record, we acknowledge that one of the reasons for this hearing is a series of published media reports implying that LMH has cut corners and failed to provide quality housing to servicemembers. LMH welcomes and encourages military families to raise complaints about their housing and we regret when even one servicemember family is dissatisfied with our performance. We recognize that some issues have become compounded due to some servicemembers' feeling like there is a breakdown of trust and communication with LMH. We are committed to fixing those issues in a manner that puts the readiness of military families first."
A spokesperson for Lincoln Military Housing tells ABC 10News, "LMH stands behind the statement we made to Congress in 2019. More than 1,400 LMH employees, many of whom are veterans, military spouses, or have service members in their families, wake up every day to serve our residents with honor and integrity, and we strive for every one of our residents to be 100% satisfied with their Lincoln experience. LMH and our military service partners have multiple avenues for residents to raise concerns, either through our three-step dispute resolution process, our executive hotline, or via the military services' resident advocate program. We work diligently and collaboratively to resolve all issues to the satisfaction of our residents and will continue to do so, and we regret that any resident feels that they must turn to litigation as a recourse."
That congressional hearing happened about three months after the Huffmans moved into their San Diego home.
"Everything porous or made of paper we had to trash," Matt said. "Our sofa, entertainment center, bookshelves, mattresses, sheets, and comforters. Things like that had to be thrown out on the street."
Matt said they had to start over, first in a hotel, and then in RV at a private military area in San Diego.
He said most of the family's items can be replaced, with the exception of the letters his dad wrote him while he was in boot camp.
His dad passed away about 10 years ago.
"Just having to throw them away and not being able to read back through them," he said while in tears.
Right now, the Huffman case is still in the early stages.
Their lawsuit asks for damages, punitive damages, and attorney's fees, among other things.
Matt retires from the military this year, and the family plans to move to North Carolina, where his wife grew up.
He says he's so shaken by the experience that the only way forward is to build his own house so he can be certain there's no mold.