Families of 2 Maryland Miners File Wrongful Death Suit

April 19, 2010

The families of two western Maryland coal miners killed in the 2007 collapse of a surface mine wall have filed a wrongful death lawsuit claiming negligence by the mine’s planners, operators and safety trainers.

The complaint filed in Allegany County seeks $4 million each for the families of Dale F. Jones and Michael R. Wilt.

Jones, 51, of Lonaconing, and Wilt, 38, of Frostburg, were crushed beneath thousands of tons of rock when the highwall, or exposed rock face, of Tri-Star Mining Inc.’s Job No. 3 mine near Barton collapsed on April 17, 2007.

The complaint alleges the miners were assured by Tri-Star that the highwall was safe despite the company’s incomplete examination of the site on the day of the accident. Had the examination been thorough, it would have revealed that the wall, already weakened by underground mining decades earlier, was made further unstable by four straight days of rain before the collapse, the lawsuit claimed.

“Why must coal mine operators insist on repeatedly and flagrantly violating reasonable and obvious safety requirements at the peril of their workers?” said Keith S. Franz, a Baltimore-based attorney representing Wilt’s widow, Tonya, his two daughters and his mother.

The defendants include George R. Beener, of Rockwood, Pa., who runs both Tri-Star and BTC Developments, the mine’s landowner. Beener didn’t immediately return calls from The Associated Press.

The lawsuit also targets other individual employees of Tri-Star; engineering consultant Robert L. Dugan Jr., of Frostburg; Western Maryland Associates of Frostburg, which allegedly created the ground-control plan; Highland Engineering and Surveying Inc., of Oakland, which allegedly created a mine map; and Bituminous Safety Services Inc., of Morgantown, W.Va., which allegedly provided safety training. Dugan and Western Maryland denied any connection to the accident; Highland declined to comment and Bituminous didn’t return a call.

Tri-Star agreed in May to pay $105,000 in penalties under a settlement with the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration. The agency had originally recommended a $180,000 fine.

Baltimore attorney Donald Saiontz, representing Jones’ widow Linda and his two adult children, said the tragedy could have been avoided.

“I think it’s a classic case of indifference to the safety of miners,” Saiontz said. “They didn’t think it was very consequential to monitor the safety situation.”

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