For some West Virginia legislators, sponsoring a mine safety bill wasn’t just about preventing a repeat of the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine tragedy: it was also about something personal. Two legislators had lost fathers in coal mining accidents.
House Speaker Rick Thompson lost his father in 1952, when he fell off the mine roof — before Thompson was even born. Delegate Charlene Marshall lost two fathers — her biological father when she was six years old, and later her stepfather. Marshall emphasized that she never wanted any child to feel what she felt. As a result, she and 11 other legislators have sponsored a bill that would not only increase training and increase sanctions for violations, but would also improve the role of miners’ families during investigations. Miners’ families or their representatives would be permitted to sit in on investigator interviews. This would prevent situations like the one Marshall experienced. During a routine canvassing for the vote, she learned that the details of her father’s death were different from what her family had been told.
In addition, the bill would require a review of the three reports that were issued by Upper Big Branch investigators. The goal is to identify problems and then alter safety standards to ensure that disaster never strikes again. The three reports, as well as a federal report issued by the Mine Safety and Health Administration, faulted Massey Energy Company for allowing safety lapses that led to the accident, as well as Massey’s efforts to conceal these problems.
If the bill is passed, changes will include a whistleblower hotline for mine safety violations, double the penalties for lying to investigators, and triple the penalties for safety violations. Mining machines would shut off automatically if methane levels were too high. Mine workers would be permitted to leave areas that they believed to be unsafe.
We at the Wolfe Law Firm applaud West Virginia legislators and Governor Tomblin for taking sensible steps to end the safety abuses routinely found in coal mines. While the 2011 death toll was much lower than in 2010, more than a dozen people still died in coal mining accidents. The numbers may rise if something is not done to prevent them. Fortunately something is being done, and it will be up to inspectors and whistleblowers to ensure that mining companies don’t successfully evade the new regulations.
Until then, if you or your loved one is injured in a mining accident, you could receive workers compensation or sue any third party responsible. Most employers are required to carry workers compensation, and if so, you would receive regular payments in place of wages until you were healed. On the one hand, employees lose their right to sue their employers if the employers carry workers compensation. On the other hand, workers compensation is no fault, so even if you were at fault for the accident, you would receive something. By contrast, in a lawsuit you would not be able to collect an award if you were more than 50% at fault.
You also have the option of hiring a West Virginia personal injury attorney and suing a third party, such as a manufacturer of faulty equipment, for negligence or strict liability. If tragedy strikes and your loved one dies, you could sue the employer for wrongful death. You would argue that the employer was negligent, and if you are successful, the jury would award you damages that would include loss of service and support, pain and suffering, and any medical bills.