Security Chief at Massey Energy Co. Convicted of Obstructing Investigation of Upper Big Branch Explosion

hand_cuffs.jpgHughie Elbert Stover, security chief at Massey Energy Co., was convicted of obstructing a federal criminal investigation and of lying to federal investigators. Stover has been security chief of the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia since 1999, including during the period of the 2010 explosion that killed 29 mine workers.

After the Upper Big Branch explosion, the federal government conducted a far-reaching criminal probe into what went wrong. Stover was found guilty of obstruction after ordering a security guard to get rid of thousands of documents related to security, several months after investigators interviewed Stover about the accident. A jury in a U.S. District Court in Beckely gave Stover the maximum penalty — 25 years in prison — but he remains free until his February 29, 2012 sentencing.

There is no word over whether Stover will appeal the ruling, though Stover’s attorney called it a “rush to judgment” when those directly responsible for the mine explosion had not yet been charged.

The Upper Big Branch accident was the worst in West Virginia’s history, and the worst overall since 1970, when 38 miners were killed in Kentucky. The accident occurred after high methane levels were reported in the mine. The federal investigation that followed revealed that Massey Energy had repeatedly failed to meet safety standards from the Mine Act of 1977. Massey Energy officials repeatedly pressured mine workers to lie in safety books shown to inspectors, while keeping copies of the real books that highlighted all of the flaws.

As we at the Wolfe Law Firm have repeatedly pointed out, mining is dangerous enough work without mine companies ignoring safety regulations. We applaud the federal government’s effort to bring those responsible for the Upper Big Branch accident to justice, and hope that it leads other companies to be more conscientious about safety. Even though mines have been notably safer this past year, there have still been over a dozen deaths. In other words, there is always room for improvement.

If someone you love was injured in a coal mining accident, he or she would likely receive workers compensation. Most workplaces are required to carry workers compensation insurance; if they do, the injured party is required to accept it. One major benefit is that your loved one receives payment for injuries regardless of who was to blame — whereas he or she may not get any money from a lawsuit. Your loved one could also hire a West Virginia personal injury attorney and sue a third party if it could be proven that a third party (such as an equipment manufacturer) was partially responsible. Your loved one would need to prove that he or she was less than 50% at fault for the accident. Otherwise, West Virginia, which has a system of “modified comparative negligence,” will not let him or her collect a monetary award.

If on the other hand, your loved one loses his or her life to a workplace accident, you could sue for wrongful death. If your suit is successful, the jury will award you money for loss of support and services, medical bills, and other losses.