Over the past few years, West Virginia law enforcement and courts have been dealing with the fallout from the worst mining disaster in West Virginia history, and the second-worst in the history of the United States. Back in April 2010, 29 mine workers were killed in an explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine, which at the time was owned by Massey Energy Company. The cause has been determined to be a combination of gross negligence and criminal cover-up by Massey employees. Although Massey Energy Company would eventually be purchased by Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources, Massey executives and management continue to be investigated and face prison sentences and large penalties.
Some who have cooperated with the investigation have managed to get lighter sentences. Recently, one former executive, David Hughart, a former Massey executive, asked the federal district court for leniency when he is sentenced on August 1 of this year. Hughart had worked for a different Massey Energy Company subsidiary and left the company before the blast occurred. However, he admitted to working with others to give mine workers at another Massey subsidiary illegal warnings about federal inspections, which are supposed to be a surprise. Hughart ended up pleading guilty to conspiracy charges. He faces a sentence of up to six years in prison and a fine of $350,000.
Hughart recently argued that as a result of the “terrible negativity” and high publicity surrounding the case, he has been unfairly linked to the Upper Big Branch mine explosion. That has led to a collapse in his economic status, from fairly well off to “totally destitute.” The Assistant United States Attorney, however, called on the court to impose a stiffer sentence due to the conspiratorial nature of Hughart’s offense, which placed mine workers in danger. The Assistant U.S. Attorney also noted that Hughart was president of an important Massey subsidiary, who had great control over certain mines and used that control to violate the law. That said, given the assistance Hughart has provided, he may yet receive a lenient sentence.
The Assistant U.S. Attorney is right: Hughart’s crime was not simply incidental to the Upper Big Branch explosion, but was part of a culture of corruption that permitted the explosion to happen. Massey executives had the power to permit reasonable surprise inspections, which would have led the company to adopt practices that were safer for the workers in its mines. Instead, executives like Hughart abused their power, for reasons that may have had simply to do with profits. They can tell themselves that they were not truly responsible for the catastrophe or any others that follow, but tell that to the families who have lost loved ones as a result of such behavior.
In these types of situations, many families hire a West Virginia wrongful death attorney and file a lawsuit against the employer. They argue that the employer breached its duty of reasonable care toward its employees, and as a result of the breach, their loved one suffered injuries that proved fatal. They typically seek a monetary award for pain and suffering, medical bills, loss of companionship, lost wages, and more.