‘We’ve been living in hell’: Family seeks answers after deadly Petersburg Borough van crash

a Petersburg van crash memorial
Memorial signs mark the spot where Molly Parks and Marie Giesbrecht were killed in a July 4, 2016 crash while they rode in a Petersburg Borough van. (File/KFSK)

A six-year legal battle between the estate of the late Molly Parks and the Petersburg Borough has ended.

On Feb. 22, the Alaska Supreme Court dismissed the Parks family’s appeal of a Superior Court judgment. That decision dropped the Petersburg Borough from a wrongful death lawsuit over a 2016 van accident. The crash killed 18-year-old Molly Parks and 19-year-old Marie Giesbrecht, the daughter of Petersburg’s borough manager.

Now, the Parks family is shifting its focus to changing the state’s compensation law for those who lose their lives at work.

Molly Parks was an employee of Petersburg Borough’s Parks and Recreation when she died in the 2016 van crash. She and three other workers were on their way to set up for a running race as part of the borough’s Fourth of July celebration. The driver, Chris Allen, suffered a seizure in the moments before the van drove through a guardrail.

Madonna and RD Parks have been seeking justice for their daughter’s death for nearly seven years. RD said that the family never got answers from the borough. 

“We’ve been living in hell since July 4th, 2016,” said RD Parks. “It’s not as painful as it was, but it’s still incredibly painful. And it will be the rest of our lives. They killed her, and then they just turned their backs on us and never told us anything.”

Molly was the couple’s only child. Madonna Parks said the accident and the ensuing legal battle changed the entire landscape of their lives. 

“I never went back to work,” said Madonna Parks. “I couldn’t do it and do this too. But it’s hard. It’s hard not having our daughter. It’s hard. We just visited a niece who had twin boys — we’re not going to see grandchildren. Her classmates are getting married, having babies. She wanted to be a special education teacher. There’s an opening at the school that she would have come back and applied for.”

The Parks family’s lawsuit initially sought damages from the driver and the borough. Then the state was added, with the plaintiffs contending that the crash would not have happened if the state had installed a higher guardrail. 

At the end of February, the Supreme Court of Alaska dismissed the case. In a 2-1 vote, the court ruled that the borough followed Alaska law regarding the Workers’ Compensation Act. Molly’s parents were out of town when they got the news, and Madonna said the dismissal of the case reopened the wound of Molly’s death. 

“We were sitting in Orange Beach, Alabama,” she said. “There’s a park where we rode our bikes every day and we stopped to have lunch. And there was the email from our lawyer saying that the decision had come in. And I remember saying, ‘Just don’t do it. I’m going to start crying and I can’t deal with this right now. We’re literally on our bikes.’ So we decided to take that one last ride. Then we just waited until that evening and read the decision. And it was soul-sucking.”

Chief Justice Daniel Winfree and Justice Jennifer Henderson dismissed the case on the basis that the Parks family’s appeal was too narrowly focused. And, they decided, the allegations against the borough and the driver, Allen, do not meet the requirements of an intentional harm claim under Alaska law.

However, the two judges acknowledged that Parks’s death was likely preventable, and said they recognized the harshness of the low compensation available. Under the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Act, the Parks family was only entitled to up to $10,000 for Molly’s death. That amount was supposed to cover her funeral expenses.

Justice Susan Carney dissented from the ruling.

“I cannot join in such a clear miscarriage of justice,” she wrote. “Despite the Borough’s decision to repeatedly endanger Allen and any employees unfortunate enough to be required to ride in a vehicle driven by Allen, the court concludes that neither the Borough’s nor Allen’s callous and criminal conduct is sufficient to take Parks’s death outside the exclusivity provision of the Workers’ Compensation Act.”

Carney cited evidence of Allen’s longstanding history of seizures before and after working at the borough. The court noted the seizures Allen suffered at work for the borough that same year — including one while working at the Petersburg Parks and Recreation front desk.

Following that incident, the borough developed a plan to have a second employee always present with Allen so that he would not be alone during a seizure. However, Allen’s supervisors allowed him to continue working as a lifeguard and drive the borough van. That was just three months before the accident that took the lives of Marie Giesbrecht and Molly Parks.

Madonna said she and RD are still waiting for answers.

“How did he get hired to work in a facility that is geared towards children?” Madonna Parks said. “Why did they give him the keys to that van? They scheduled him, gave him the keys to the van. And then what? Was there an internal review afterwards? Was there any policy change? Did anybody get demoted? Anybody get fired? Anybody even get a stern lecture? As far as we know, they did nothing. They just wanted it to go away.”

The borough declined to answer questions about the suit. Borough Manager Steve Giesbrecht, who also lost a daughter in the wreck, has remained quiet about the incident over the years.

Instead, the borough released a written statement. It said the borough did not agree with Carney’s dissent, but that: “The Borough’s deepest sympathies go out to the Parks and Giesbrecht families. The pain of this tragedy will stay with Petersburg forever.”

Moving forward, the Parks family hopes to work with the state Legislature to change the Workers Compensation Act — which, they say, allows individuals, businesses, and government entities to hide behind the shield of Workers’ Compensation when their actions result in death or injury to their employees.

“This is the last thing that we will ever do for her,” said Madonna Parks. “We will always remember her, but this is the last piece of justice we can get for her. She just walked out the door on a Saturday morning and never came home. And she went to a very low-risk job — she wasn’t logging. She wasn’t fishing. She wasn’t in a float plane. She should have come home that night.”

If the Parks family is successful in getting the Workers’ Compensation statute changed, they hope it will be named “Molly’s Law.”

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