Maine Judge Awards $729K to Injured Blueberry Farmworker

A judge has awarded $729,845 in damages to a seasonal blueberry farmworker who nearly died of heat stroke while on the job.

Justice William Anderson issued his decision Wednesday in favor of 38-year-old Michael Lund of Machias. The judge decided that Millard A. Whitney & Sons, Inc., the blueberry harvesting company that hired Lund, is negligent and responsible for the injuries he suffered on March 22, 2012. The award covers medical expenses, lost wages, pain and suffering, and permanent impairment.

Justice Anderson presided over the civil trial that was held Sept. 19-23 at the Penobscot Judicial Center in Bangor. It was a bench trial, meaning that Justice Anderson alone heard the evidence and decided the outcome, instead of a jury.

Attorneys Travis Brennan and James O’Connell of Berman & Simmons represented Lund. Brennan thanked Justice Anderson for his careful consideration of the facts, and said he was pleased for his client.

“This case was about the obligations employers have to protect employees when they require them to work in extreme heat or other hazardous conditions,” Brennan said. “By standing up for Michael, Berman & Simmons also stands up for the thousands of workers in Maine who deserve safe working conditions.”

Lund was hired to work on a seasonal crew that was burning blueberry fields on an 85-degree day in March. Burning is still a common practice for regenerating blueberry crops. Lund, who had never participated in a field burn, was given insulated coveralls to wear and told to walk behind a burning machine, Brennan said at trial.

After working into the afternoon, Lund lost consciousness and was rushed to a local hospital, where his body temperature was measured at 108 degrees. He was taken by LifeFlight helicopter to the ICU at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor. The heat stroke caused rhabdomyolysis, a condition that resulted in permanent damage to the muscles in Lund’s legs and right shoulder. Brennan argued that Whitney & Sons failed to take basic steps to protect Lund from heat stroke, such as providing employees with training on how to identify and respond to symptoms of overheating.

“The blueberry industry is vital to Maine, particularly in Hancock and Washington counties where harvesters and processors are major employers, and jobs are scarce,” Brennan said today. “But no companies are exempt from the basic duty to protect their workers. When companies don’t meet those obligations, we need to hold them accountable.”