AUGUSTA — State legislators continue to consider a bill that would compensate Susan Cloutier for the loss of her husband and son in a December 2014 crash.
The bill, L.D. 1671, would provide $400,000 to Cloutier, whose husband, Ghislain “Gus,” and son, Casey, were killed on the way to a hockey tournament when their car collided head-on with a sport utility vehicle that crossed the center line on U.S. Route 202 in Leeds.
Cloutier and the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, spoke last week in front of the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee asking them to approve the legislation, which has the backing of Gov. Paul LePage.
“I told them I was not here asking for pity or sympathy,” Cloutier said Monday during an interview at the Kennebec Journal. “I was asking for the financial support to raise my other son, Chase, maintain our lives and our home and our future, which was abruptly stolen from us.”
The committee unanimously voted in support of the bill, which House Clerk Robert Hunt expects to be in front of the full House of Representatives shortly. Cloutier is hopeful that there is little debate on the House and Senate floor because the bill had unanimous committee support.
Maine tort law limits the state’s liability to $400,000 per incident, but Hickman said Cloutier should get double that amount.
“In essence, we would be compensating the family $400,000 for the loss of her husband and $400,000 for the loss of her son, providing equitable relief for both tragedies,” Hickman said, according to a transcript of the committee session. “(It would allow) Susan and her son some sense of security as they continue to grieve and find a way forward.”
Cloutier became emotional several times during the Monday interview, including when she talked about needing financial assistance to pay for regular life expenses as well as Chase’s extracurricular activities.
Casey Cloutier was a student at St. Dominic Academy in Auburn, and Cloutier said it was the hope of her and her husband that Chase would attend the same school as his older brother. Casey was a hockey fanatic and played on teams and regularly in tournaments, something that Chase continues while also excelling in karate.
Complicating matters for Cloutier, who returned full-time to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services Office of Information Technology in September, is her initial claim against the state. The driver of the other vehicle involved in the accident, Ralph Ryder Jr., of Livermore, was a state employee driving his own vehicle during work hours. He had a $50,000 policy for each injured party with GEICO, Cloutier said.
“State tort law limits my claim to $400,000, so the state would settle that claim with me and then be reimbursed by GEICO for the amount of Ryder’s policy,” Cloutier said.
The caveat attached to Hickman’s legislation is that it only becomes effective if Cloutier’s claim against the state is resolved, said Avery Day, chief legal counsel for LePage. Day said the legislation would provide an additional $400,000 by providing an appropriation rather than going through the process of litigating damages.
Cloutier said her attorney, Michelle Allott, of Farris Law in Gardiner, is working to resolve the claim with the attorney general’s office. Allott is handling Cloutier’s case pro bono and said there are standard legal hurdles that need to be cleared. The case involves a surviving minor child, so any financial settlement needs to be approved by a judge.
Attorney general spokesman Timothy Feeley said via email that the AG’s office has been working with Allott on the claim, but he would not elaborate.
“I don’t expect any problems. It just takes time because you have to get a bunch of documents together,” Allott said. She said she is pleased that the Legislature and governor worked together on behalf of Cloutier and her son. “It would be nice if we could just get it taken care of.”
Androscoggin District Attorney Andrew Robinson said his office determined in early March that Ryder would not face criminal charges in the fatal accident.
“We did not find any criminal conduct,” Robinson said.
In December 2015, Hickman tried to introduce emergency legislation, “An Act To Compensate Susan Cloutier for Damages in Connection with Her Vehicle Liability Claim against a State Employee at the Department of Labor,” but the bill never got off the ground.
Cloutier hopes Hickman’s effort and concern for her and her son is more successful this time around.
“I’m just trying to provide for my son,” Cloutier said. “He’s been my rock.”
Jason Pafundi — 621-5663