Ed Benjamin and Amy Olfene Win Municipal Premises Liability Trial
On August 16, 2018 a jury in Waldo County Superior Court ruled in favor of the Town of Montville after a four day trial in a case in which a town resident was injured by the collapse of a large sand pile in the town’s sand shed. The claim arose on December 21, 2013 when Plaintiffs Melissa and Joe Thornley drove their pickup truck into the town’s sand shed building and began shoveling sand from the sand pile into the back of their truck. The town generally stocks an entire winter season’s supply of a sand/salt mixture in the sand shed, filling it nearly to the ceiling. Witnesses testified that the sand pile was up to 40’ high in places inside the shed. The pile of sand from which Plaintiffs were taking sand was reportedly 15’ high.
As Plaintiffs shoveled sand, the pile suddenly collapsed and Plaintiff Melissa Thornley was pushed partially under the rear of the truck and buried in sand up to her shoulders. Town employees and a town resident at the nearby transfer station building responded to the calls for help from Joe Thornley and rushed into the sand shed. Because of the way Melissa Thornley was trapped under the truck, the truck could not be moved and she had to be dug out of the sand by hand. This was done by town employees and a town resident, despite the danger posed to them by the large sand pile above where they were working to free Melissa Thornley.
Plaintiffs sued the town, with Melissa Thornley claiming to have suffered “crush injuries” to her lower extremities, and a back injury. She was also diagnosed with PTSD following the event. Joe Thornley claimed a bystander emotional distress claim from witnessing the sand pile collapse and bury his wife. At trial Plaintiffs claimed that the town’s Road Commissioner had told them they could drive into the sand shed to get sand. That claim was vehemently denied by the Road Commissioner, who testified that he had earlier found the Thornleys and their truck in the shed and ordered them to leave. The Road Commissioner testified that when he went into the town garage to put away a backhoe he had been using to load trucks, the Thornleys used his absence to sneak back into the sand shed and resume taking sand, which action ultimately led to the pile collapsing down onto Melissa Thornley. The Select Board of the town had previously directed the Road Commissioner to put a cable across the entrance to the sand shed to keep people from driving vehicles into the shed. The cable had been put in place, but it had been taken down on that day as contractors were actively loading trucks from the sand shed and sanding town roads due to an ice storm.
At the conclusion of the evidence, the jury found that the town was negligent in its operation of the sand shed. In addition to the testimony that the cable used to bar vehicles from entering the shed was not up on this day, the town conceded that it had no signs in place to specifically advise residents that they were not allowed in the sand shed, and also no signs warning of the danger posed by an unstable sand pile. But the jury found that the town had proven that Melissa Thornley was also negligent and that, by a 9-0 vote, the jury also found that the town had proven that her negligence was equal to or greater than any negligence of the town. Under Maine’s comparative negligence law, if a plaintiff is at least equally at fault in causing his/her own harm no recovery is allowed against the defendant. Based on the jury’s verdict, judgment was entered in favor of the Town of Montville.