Wrongful Death Suits Filed Against Massey Over West Virginia Mine Blast

By Steve James | March 8, 2011

The families of two coal miners killed in the Upper Big Branch mine blast in West Virginia last year filed wrongful death lawsuits against the mine’s owner, Massey Energy Co, saying it was a “catastrophe waiting to happen,”

The suits come a week after Massey’s head of security at the West Virginia mine was charged with impeding investigators probing the April 5, 2010, explosion that killed 29 miners in the worst U.S. mine accident in four decades.

According to the suits, the families of Joe Marcum and Adam Morgan, who died in the explosion, are seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages as a result of “the willful, wanton and recklessly unsafe manner” in which Massey operated the mine.

The complaints allege Massey had “an abysmal safety record” and the number of federal safety violations more than doubled between 2008 and 2009 — something then-Chief Executive Officer Don Blankenship was aware of.

Lawyer Tim Bailey said the suits were filed in the circuit court in Boone County, West Virginia, after preliminary investigations of the blast “gave us enough information to conclude the location, source and cause of the ignition.”

Bailey told Reuters Tuesday he filed a third suit on behalf of Stanley Stewart, a miner who survived the explosion.

The final report by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) is not expected until year’s end, but preliminary findings suggest the mine was not properly treated with crushed limestone to control buildup of explosive coal dust.

The suits also note preliminary findings that water spray nozzles on mining equipment were not operating properly to prevent sparks and reduce coal dust.

Two separate suits were filed soon after the blast and Massey says it reached settlements with seven families of victims. Details have not been made public, but Massey said it offered $3 million to settle any claims against the company.

Massey had no immediate comment on the new lawsuits. A spokesman for Alpha Natural Resources Inc, which has agreed to acquire Massey, said the merger’s closing was still expected in the middle of this year and was not affected by lawsuits.

“(But) Obviously we would like as much of it settled before the closing,” he said.

The latest suits were filed against Massey and its subsidiary, Performance Coal, which operated Upper Big Branch, but not Massey’s often outspoken former CEO Blankenship.

Bailey said it was not necessary to do so, since “he is a different sort of CEO — much more hands-on.” However, Blankenship is named in the complaint.

“Don Blankenship was actually aware of the unsafe manner in which the Upper Big Branch mine was operated as his involvement necessarily included his knowledge of the staggering number of safety violations issued by safety authorities,” the complaint says.

“The intimate involvement by Don Blankenship in the activities at Upper Big Branch and his knowledge of the abysmal safety record of the mine reflect a gross negligent or reckless indifference to workplace safety.”

The complaints note that prior to the explosion, the mine was cited by MSHA 38 times for mine ventilation violations and 37 times for unsafe accumulations of combustible materials (coal dust).

“With the number of mine safety violations which existed and had been allowed to exist … the Upper Big Branch mine was a catastrophe waiting to happen,” the suits say.

On Feb. 28, Hughie Stover, chief of security at the mine, was arrested and charged with impeding investigators by ordering the disposal of thousands of documents and of lying to investigators looking into allegations that it was a routine practice to alert miners when safety inspectors arrived.

Massey stock was up 2 cents at $64.27 in afternoon trading on the New York Stock Exchange.

The suits are Tammy Morgan v Massey Energy Co, Massey Coal Services, Inc, Performance Coal Co. 11-c-47; Kathy Marcum v same defendants 11-c-46 and Stanley Stewart and Mindi Stewart v same defendants 11-c-48.

(Reporting by Steve James; editing by Derek Caney and Andre Grenon)

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