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Judge to decide if blueberry firm negligent in worker’s severe heat stroke

BANGOR, Maine — A Superior Court judge will decide whether a blueberry grower was responsible for the severe heat stroke a Machias man suffered while burning off a field or if the worker’s poor physical condition and the unusually warm weather caused him to become ill more than four years ago.

Michael Lund, 36, sued Milliard A. Whitney & Sons two years ago in Washington County Superior Court. He claims the company was negligent in preparing him for a kind of work he had never done.

The trial began Monday before Justice William Anderson at the Penobscot Judicial Center rather than in Machias by agreement of the parties.

Lund was called on March 22, 2012, to replace another worker in the burning of blueberry fields, his attorney, Travis Brennan of Portland, said in his opening statement. Lund had worked previously for Whitney & Sons but had never worked a burn before.

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“He was given insulated coveralls and gloves like those worn by hunters to wear on a day when the temperature reached 85 degrees,” Brennan said. “He was the only one to walk behind the burner. All the other workers rode on the burner or on ATVs.”

Lund became disoriented during the second burn in the early afternoon but did not recognize the signs of heat stroke, Brennan told the judge. Lund collapsed and was taken to Downeast Community Hospital where his temperature was 108 degrees and he was unresponsive and in respiratory failure.

Lund was flown from the Machias hospital to Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, where he spent three days in the intensive care unit, the attorney said. Lund was released on the fourth day after a miraculous recovery but still suffers pain in his right shoulder and lower legs that keeps him from exercising and limits his ability to work and enjoy other activities, Brennan said.

David King, the Bangor attorney who represents Whitney & Sons, said in his opening statement that Lund owes his life to the Whitney son who was overseeing the burn that day.

“David Whitney saved Michael Lund’s life because he recognized symptoms of heat stroke, but the firm was not negligent,” King said. “He took the overalls off Michael, put ice in a hat and put it on his head to cool him off and drove him to the hospital.”

King also told the judge that neither Lund nor other workers that day expressed concern about being able to do the job as instructed. He also said there were breaks between the burns and water was available so workers could stay hydrated.

Lund is seeking $68,000 in medical bills, past and future wages and unspecified damages for pain and suffering and loss of the enjoyment of life.

Whitney & Sons was not required to have Workers’ Compensation Insurance because it employs seasonal agricultural workers. If it had been a business required to have that kind of insurance, Lund’s claims would have been handled by the Workers’ Compensation Board.

The jury-waived trial is scheduled to last up to seven days. Anderson is expected to issue a written decision later this fall, but there is no timetable under which he must issue a decision.


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