West Virginia Miners’ Widows Press Claims Against Massey Energy

Lawyers in a suit stemming from a fatal fire at a Massey Energy coal mine 2006 clashed this week over whether the deaths of two men could have been averted.

Bruce Stanley, representing the widows of both men, told a Logan County jury that pressure applied by Massey and Chief Executive Don Blankenship on management at the Aracoma Alma No. 1 mine led to decisions that contributed to the deaths of miners Ellery Elvis Hatfield, 46, and Don Bragg, 33. Both died after getting lost in thick, black smoke from a conveyer belt fire at the Logan County mine.

“They died over money,” Stanley said.

Stanley backed his contention by showing jurors a series of often-blunt memos from Blankenship and other Massey executives urging managers at Aracoma and other mines to concentrate on production. Two sent the day of the fire told Aracoma management to “stay on coal” instead of non-production tasks.

The mine is owned and operated by Aracoma Coal Co., a subsidiary of Richmond, Va.-based Massey, the nation’s fourth-largest coal producer by revenue. The widows of Bragg and Hatfield are suing Massey, Aracoma, subsidiary A.T. Massey and Blankenship.

“You get to decide what kind of pressure those miners were under at Aracoma,” Stanley said.

Defense lawyers conceded mistakes, but they told jurors the evidence won’t show their clients were so uncaring that they intended for Bragg and Hatfield to be seriously injured or killed.

“Mistakes were made, poor decisions were made. There’s no question that things could have been done better and in hindsight things could have been done differently,” Aracoma lawyer Niall Paul said. “Horrible accident. Terrible tragedy. Bad decisions. Mistakes made that led up to it, but deliberate intent — you will not find evidence of that.”

Massey and A.T. Massey lawyer Jim Crockett Jr. said no one at either company caused or mandated the many things that went wrong at Aracoma.

“It happened in spite of them and not because of them,” he said.

As for Blankenship, lawyer Tom Flaherty said his position is so far removed from the day-to-day workings deep below southern West Virginia that he simply doesn’t belong in the case.

Stanley intends to prove that Blankenship micromanaged the mine for years, giving him a direct role in what occurred there.

Flaherty called that contention “ludicrous” and “not fair.”

“Don Blankenship does not belong in this case,” he said.

Testimony in the trial is scheduled to start Wednesday morning and is expected to last at least a week.

The January 2006 fire occurred 17 days after 12 miners died following an explosion at the Sago Mine in northern West Virginia. Both accidents led to sweeping state and federal mine safety legislation.

Massey is appealing $1.5 million in fines for 25 violations that the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration concluded contributed to the deaths.

MSHA and state investigators pinpointed a conveyor belt as the source of the fire and concluded that missing walls that control air flow and faulty firefighting equipment were key factors. Additionally, investigators found that water lines for fire hoses and sprinklers at the scene of the fire were shut off and that fire hoses couldn’t be connected because of incompatible fittings, a problem that had been reported to management after a similar fire on Dec. 23, 2005.

The fire also remains the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Charleston.