Aug. 31—RUMFORD — Maine's highest court has rejected a claim by an Oxford County woman that she was entitled to compensation for her post-traumatic stress disorder after witnessing a fatal workplace incident at the NewPage paper mill in 2014.
According to court records, in August of 2014, NewPage hired Somatex Crane, which is based in Michigan and has a location in Pittsfield, to repair an overhead crane. Two Somatex employees, Brant Munster and Zack Croft, were at the mill to do those repairs and Kim Boivin, a NewPage super calendar crane operator, was asked to work with them.
In an effort to determine why the overhead crane wasn't working correctly, court records show that Munster climbed onto the crane to ride it while it was running. While he was on the crane, both he and Croft "instructed" Boivin to operate the crane. She refused several times, she told the court, but ultimately agreed to do as they asked.
As she moved the crane, Munster "unexpectedly stood up and was crushed between an overhead truss beam and the moving crane," according to court records. He was knocked off the crane and fell about 30 feet to the floor, landing in front of Boivin.
Munster, who was 35 years old and was living in Newport at the time of the incident, died from his injuries.
Boivin told the court she "sustained PTSD and related mental, emotional and behavioral disorders as a record of the incident."
The two had not known each other before that day.
Boivin filed a civil lawsuit against Somatex in Oxford County Superior Court in 2020 and, in March 2021, amended her complaint alleging that the company's negligence caused her PTSD, a direct result from witnessing the fatal incident. According to court records, she did not specify whether the claim was for general negligence or negligent infliction of emotional distress.
A month later, Somatex moved for summary judgment, asking the court to make a decision in the case without going to trial, arguing that Boivin failed to establish that Somatex or its employees owed "a duty to Boivin pursuant to one of the limited circumstances where Maine law imposes a duty to avoid causing mental harm to others."
Boivin opposed Somatex's request, arguing hers was a "classic and standard negligence case," and included a forensic psychiatrist's affidavit arguing PTSD is both a physical and mental disorder. Boivin also asserted that she should be entitled to compensation because of negligent infliction of emotional distress.
In August last year, the Oxford County court granted Somatex's motion after finding that Boivin had failed to make a case that she was injured and "had no cause of action for general negligence," and ruled that she was not entitled to compensation because she was not a direct victim of Somatex's negligence.
Boivin appealed that decision to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court earlier this year; arguments in the case were heard in May.
The Law Court has upheld the Oxford County court's decision in favor of Somatex, ruling that Boivin had not provided a factual foundation that Somatex breached its general negligence duty not to cause her physical injury and also failed to prove Somatex had a duty to avoid causing her emotional harm.
The court noted that it has, on occasion, found in favor of claims by other plaintiffs who prove they are "direct" victims of emotional distress, but found Boivin's claims to fall into the category of a "bystander" case.
In an affidavit Boivin filed with the court, she had explained that she has been unable to work because of PTSD since the incident, and that "my PTSD causes me to experience pain, suffering, mental anguish and distress. I frequently experience images in my mind of the events of August 25, 2014, and regret that I had agreed to operate the crane with Mr. Munster on it. I frequently experience night terrors that plague me at night, leaving me exhausted, confused and unable to concentrate on daily personal tasks the next day."
She also claimed that she suffers from vertigo that causes dizziness and vomiting, but the court found no evidence her vertigo is triggered or caused by PTSD.
Ultimately, the court determined that because Boivin had no employee or "special" relationship with Somatex, and because she could not assert a close relationship with Munster because she'd only met him the day of the incident, that Somatex did not owe her a duty to avoid causing her either physical injury or emotional harm.
When reached for comment, Matthew Mehalic, one of the attorneys representing Somatex, said, "We feel that the Law Court correctly applied the law to the facts of the case and we are pleased with the outcome."
Attempts to reach Boivin by phone were not successful.