A memorial for 19-year-old Marie Giesbrecht and 18-year-old Molly Parks on South Nordic Drive in Petersburg. (Joe VIechnicki/KFSK)

The state has settled a wrongful death lawsuit over a van wreck near downtown Petersburg on the Fourth of July, nearly four years ago. However, the plaintiffs are appealing a superior court judgment that dropped the Petersburg borough and the van driver from the case.

The suit was brought on behalf of 18-year-old Molly Parks, one of two people killed in that crash. All four in the vehicle were helping set up for a running race as part of the Petersburg borough’s Independence Day celebration. The lawsuit initially sought damages from the borough and Chris Allen. He was the driver of the borough van and suffered a seizure before it went off the road and flipped over. The state was added in the lawsuit with the plaintiffs contending the crash would not have happened if the state had installed a higher guard rail on South Nordic Drive.

“There did appear to be liability on the state’s part from our view point, our experts, in terms of a guard rail that was too low, which may have contributed to the van vaulting the guard rail,” said attorney Mark Choate, co-counsel for the estate of Molly Parks. “But clearly the vast majority of fault was on the city of Petersburg and Chris Allen,” he added.

The plaintiffs argue that the municipality, now the Petersburg Borough, knew about Allen’s seizures and should not have let him drive with three other borough employees.

Superior Court Judge William Carey handed down a final judgement against the plaintiffs in February. Carey ruled that the state’s workers’ compensation law was the sole remedy for an employee injured or killed while working and that the borough or Allen were not liable. That left the state as the sole defendant and the case was scheduled to go to trial this year. That’s until this settlement agreement, which dismisses the case against the state for a payment of 65,000 dollars for the estate of Molly Parks. A statement from the Department of Law said the state maintains it is not liable but determined it was in the state’s interest to settle.

Allen also faced criminal charges. He was sentenced in 2018 to jail time and restitution of over 40,000 dollars after pleading guilty to a manslaughter charge. 

The plaintiffs have filed an appeal of the superior court ruling. Choate explained they hope to convince the state’s highest court that Alaska should not have such a high bar for payment outside of workers compensation law.

“It’s not the purpose of the workers comp laws to protect employers or employees who engage in ultra-hazardous, what we call gross negligence, reckless conduct,” Choate said. “His conduct was reckless. It was reckless that anyone ever gave him the keys.”

Attorneys for Allen and the Petersburg borough have argued in past court filings that the state workers comp law is the sole remedy.

The borough’s attorney Al Clayton said, “This is a very tragic situation. We do however believe that superior Court Judge Carey’s resolution of the case was in accord with Alaska law and the Petersburg borough believes Judge Carey’s order dismissing claims against Petersburg will be affirmed on appeal by the Alaska Supreme Court.”

Allen’s attorney had no comment on the appeal of the case.