Judge: Trapped Miners Can Sue Company, Not 3 Others

February 22, 2008

Eight of the nine miners trapped underground in July 2002 when a Pennsylvania mineshaft flooded can continue their suit against the firm that controlled the mine, a judge ruled.

Six other miners who narrowly escaped being trapped by the underground deluge in the Quecreek Mine also may continue with their claims against PBS Coals, Allegheny County Judge R. Stanton Wettick Jr. ruled.

PBS had argued that flooding was an occupational hazard, but Wettick rejected that and other PBS arguments in a 24-page opinion Tuesday.

Wettick also ruled that Consol Energy Inc., one of the nation’s largest coal mining companies, and three smaller companies couldn’t be held liable for the accident. The four companies had controlled mining rights in the area before PBS.

Federal and state investigators determined inaccurate maps of previous mining in the area _ about 60 miles southeast of Pittsburgh _ caused the miners to dig into an abandoned mine. Water that filled the adjacent old mine rushed in, flooding the Quecreek Mine. The nine trapped men were rescued after 76 hours and brought to the surface one by one in a metal capsule.

“In this case, flooding is not a risk inherent to coal mining. This will not occur where there is a proper mapping and drilling,” Wettick wrote in refusing to dismiss PBS Coals from the lawsuit.

A PBS Coals attorney did not immediately return a call for comment Wednesday.

The judge rejected the miners’ claims that Consol and the three smaller companies, which once owned the coal rights, misrepresented how much coal had been mined from the area. The miners claimed the companies did that to get more money when the rights were sold, with the result that the extent of the abandoned mine was underestimated on the miners’ maps.

After the Quecreek accident, Consol found another map that accurately depicted the flooded mine, which had been abandoned about 40 years earlier. But Wettick found no evidence that Consol withheld that information on purpose.

The judge found the owner of the other three companies never viewed maps before buying the coal rights from Consol.

The bulk of Wettick’s ruling dealt with the application of Pennsylvania workers’ compensation laws.

Friedens-based PBS argued that it was the miners’ employer and immune from the miners’ claims, but Wettick found the miners worked for Black Wolf Coal Co., a shell corporation the judge said was created to serve an independent contractor to mine the coal.

Howard Messer, an attorney for the miners, said he was happy that the claims are one step closer to trial.

“We’re happy to get started on the final lap,” Messer said.

One of the nine trapped miners, Mark Popernack, did not to sue PBS and the other companies. Popernack, who lives in Somerset and works as a coal salesman and dispatcher for PBS, said Wednesday that he has “lots of reasons” for not suing, but declined to name them.

Wettick set a pretrial conference for March 6, but the case will likely not go to trial for several more months.

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