In the past, we at the Wolfe Law Firm have kept an eye on the legal proceedings surrounding the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster of 2010. The Upper Big Branch Mine explosion killed 29 miners in April of that year, and was the deadliest mining accident in West Virginia history. A number of people involved have already been charged and some convicted, such as the security chief for Massey Energy Company, the former owner of Upper Big Branch.
Most recently, Gary May, a former mine superintendent, was sentenced in federal district court to two years in prison, and to pay a $20,000 fine, for plotting to avoid safety rules and cover up the hazards that resulted. Judge Irene Berger commented that the sentence should make members of the coal industry think twice for putting business interests ahead of safety. May’s crime, conspiracy, carries a maximum possible sentence of five years, but May was able to reduce his time through cooperation with federal prosecutors. Yet Judge Berger would not consider his plea to turn his sentence into home confinement and probation.
United States Attorney Booth Goodwin stated that his office approved of the sentence. Currently, the federal prosecutors’ probe is looking into a “significant conspiracy” on the part of Massey Energy Company employees to violate mine safety laws. In pursuing this avenue, the prosecutors are not just utilizing mine safety laws, but also broader criminal conspiracy law. However, Goodwin would not reveal whether prosecutors thought that criminal conspiracy actions extended to corporate executives or the boardroom.
The use of criminal conspiracy laws, in addition to mine safety laws, is practically unprecedented. Then again, when you have the deadliest mining disaster in West Virginia history, an unprecedented wide scope may be exactly what is needed. There was one criminal prosecution of a mine superintendent, but that was all the way back in 1992.
May will be the third person sent to jail by Judge Berger. He follows Thomas Harrah, a mine foreman who received 10 months for lying to investigators, and Hughie Elbert Stover, who received 36 months due to making false statements and obstructing a government probe.
It may take years to bring those responsible for the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster to justice, and some might never be caught. However, it is encouraging to see federal prosecutors make such a concerted effort to ensure that a disaster on the scale of Upper Big Branch never happens again.
People should not have to fear for their lives at work, even work with as many inherent dangers as mining. If your loved one is killed in a workplace accident, mining or otherwise, you should consider hiring a West Virginia wrongful death attorney and filing a wrongful death suit against the employer. You would argue that the employer had a duty to maintain as safe a workplace as was reasonably possible. The employer breached that duty by ignoring workplace health and safety laws, such as by making employees perform work that was unsafe. As a result, your loved one was severely injured, and that led to his or her death. In a wrongful death suit, you would seek both general and special damages, with general damages including loss of support and pain and suffering.