A mental health patient who was pepper-sprayed by a corrections officer and held in restraints against her will for several hours on Dec. 2, 2013, at the state-run Riverview Psychiatric Center intends to sue the state for $1 million, her attorneys said.

The potential lawsuit is based in part on a state investigatory report from March that concluded Riverview staff abused patient Arlene Edson when they coated her with the spray while she was naked, alone in her room and not threatening employees.

The “notice of claim,” the first step in what could turn into a lawsuit against the state, was mailed on Tuesday to potential defendants, including Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta, former nurse William G. Lord, Gov. Paul LePage, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services and numerous other state officials. Lord, 39, of Wayne, was fired because of the incident, according to court records, and more recently was charged with aggravated assault for throwing his 3-month-old child down a flight of stairs.

“I’m a sucker for a challenging case, and this is a challenging case. We’re David, and they’re Goliath,” Daniel Lilley of Portland, Edson’s attorney, said of the lawsuit he expects to file within the next few months. Lilley said Maine gives state agencies and employees immunity from lawsuits in many situations, but what happened was so harmful to Edson that she should be able to overcome those hurdles and go before a jury.

In many cases, Maine law requires people to get the Legislature’s approval before filing a lawsuit, limiting legal actions against the state.

Rep. Richard Farnsworth, D-Portland, chairman of health and human services committee, said state laws are stacked against potential litigants, but it is possible to sue in unusual and especially egregious circumstances.

“They have to meet a very special set of criteria, and it’s not easy to do,” Farnsworth said.

Andrew Mason, an attorney who works with Lilley, said because Riverview employees overstepped their bounds by going beyond what would be their normal duties working for a state mental hospital, Edson does not need the Legislature’s OK before moving forward with the lawsuit.

Riverview Superintendent Jay Harper, who was hired in March and was not the superintendent when the pepper-spray incident occurred, declined to comment on the potential lawsuit except to say,”I’m looking forward to reading it and seeing what they have to say.”

Edson is still a patient at Riverview and couldn’t be reached for this story, but the 30-year-old from Fryeburg previously has said she has been held in restraints against her will on several occasions, she doesn’t trust the staff, and she doesn’t believe she’s being treated for her illness. Edson said she’s been at Riverview since 2011 because she was found not criminally responsible for arson and assault. She has said she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

Mason said Edson called them “out of the blue” a few weeks after the Maine Sunday Telegram printed an investigative report about Edson’s case and what former employees described as a culture of dysfunction at Riverview, where lower-level employees routinely abused patients by withholding food, tackling them or placing them in seclusion.

“You get fired up about cases like this,” Mason said. “This poor woman went through so much, and she needs someone to stand up for her.”

Until notified by the Press Herald in September, Edson was unaware that the state Department of Licensing and Regulatory Services had completed a report in March that criticized Riverview employees for abusing her. The report also found that employees downplayed what happened to make the incident seem less severe and for months failed to report the abuse, contrary to what the law requires. Numerous Riverview employees knew about the December incident, but it wasn’t reported until a nurse insisted in February that the case be turned over to state authorities, the report said.

Lilley said he is taking the case on a contingency basis, hoping it not only could help Edson, but also could force changes in how patients are treated at Riverview.

“Once you hit them in the pocketbook, things tend to change,” Lilley said, adding that the case could turn into a class-action suit by including others who were abused at Riverview.

The hospital frequently puts patients into seclusion, as compared to national averages at state hospitals, but the seclusion use has decreased over the past several months.

Harper has said the pepper-spray incident “should not have happened.” He is working on a number of reforms to improve the hospital, including employing techniques for defusing confrontations with patients and limiting the use of seclusion.

“We have implemented the reforms, and it’s been going great,” said Harper during a brief interview Tuesday.

Riverview lost its federal certification with the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in September 2013 and with it $20 million in funding. Riverview is seeking to be re-certified but failed in its first attempt this summer to regain good standing.

When asked whether the lawsuit could result in Edson leaving Riverview to be treated somewhere else, Lilley said, “It’s not something that we’ve thought of yet,” but that it could be a desired outcome.

“That’s a tall order, because people are sent to these places and it’s very difficult to get them out, especially if they have been sent there by the criminal court system,” Lilley said.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.