Five West Virginia Mine Workers Sue Employer for Ignoring High Methane Levels

abandoned_mine.jpgFive mine workers from the Federal No. 2 mine in West Virginia are suing their employer, Patriot Coal Corporation, for negligence in Monongalia County Circuit Court. They claim that managers for Saint Louis-based Patriot failed to evacuate workers at least 19 separate times when the methane levels grew too high, exposing them to danger. A methane gas explosion was credited with causing the 2010 Upper Big Branch disaster, the biggest in the history of West Virginia mining accidents.

The five workers are suing not only Patriot, but also its subsidiary Eastern Associated Coal and former managers of the company. They seek $75,000 for themselves and “similarly situated” mine workers who lost income when their mine was eventually closed. Federal investigators have already begun investigating the Federal No. 2 mine for potential problems. Some situations that have come to light include John Remmer, the ex-forman, being ordered by his supervisors to fake safety inspection reports. Remmer claims that among other things, he was told to fake methane gas readings on sealed sections of the mine. Reports of high methane levels would have meant shutting down the mine and stopping production. While Remmer is among those being sued by the mine workers, he has also filed his own lawsuit against Patriot.

The mine workers’ lawsuit claims that not only did the managers’ failure to act endanger them, but also that when the mine finally was forced to shut down, it was left idling for so long that the workers suffered financial hardship.

When a worker is injured while on the job, the worker usually has no choice but to collect workers compensation payments. That is because most employers are required by law to carry workers compensation insurance; if they do so, the worker must take the payments and cannot elect to file a lawsuit against the employer instead. The situation is different if a worker dies in an accident while on the job. Then the worker’s estate may hire a West Virginia wrongful death attorney and sue the employer for wrongful death, claiming that the employer’s negligence was the primary cause of death.

The situation with the five mine workers’ lawsuit is also different, since no one is claiming to have been injured. Instead, the claim is that they could have been seriously injured or killed by the employer’s negligence. How that will impact the jury’s decision remains to be seen. Another question is whether the mine shutdown was inevitable, a way of preserving safety, or unnecessarily prolonged due to the managers’ prior negligence. If the length of time for the mine shutdown was inevitable, that could affect how much the workers receive as compensation.

We at the Wolfe Law Firm support holding mining companies liable for their negligence. Mining is already inherently dangerous work, and it is appalling to what extent companies will go to in order to squeeze out more profit at the expense of their workers’ lives. One would hope the Upper Big Branch disaster would have taught mining companies a lesson, but apparently, it is a lesson that requires constant reinforcement.