The Chicago wrongful death lawyers at Passen & Powell have, over the past few weeks, discussed the recent explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia, the worst mining disaster in 40 years. The deaths of the many miners who lost their lives in this disaster are made all the more shocking by the fact that their employer’s abysmal record on safety suggests that negligence may have been to blame.
Now, it is being reported that the mining company, Massey Energy Company, is attempting to settle with the families of the deceased before the truth can come to light. Although federal and state investigators have not yet been able to get inside the mine (due to the presence of toxic gases), they believe that the explosion which lead to the miners’ deaths was caused by the buildup of methane gas and coal dust.
This gas, a toxic fume and a dangerous explosive, was a persistent issue at the Upper Big Branch mine. The mine had received multiple citations for federal safety violations related to the failure to properly ventilate methane. In the past year alone, the fines levied against the mine for serious ventilation violations – both the failure to properly plan for ventilation and the failure to follow its own ventilation plan – as well as the buildup of combustible coal dust, and the lack of proper firefighting equipment , have totaled nearly $400,000. Massey Energy Company (the coal industry’s most profitable producer) also has a questionable safety history throughout its mines in West Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia.
These facts have lead many, including our wrongful death lawyers, to speculate that negligence by those in charge of the mine may have been the cause of the explosion. We will never know, however, unless a thorough investigation is conducted, both by federal and state regulators and through the diligent prosecution of civil actions by the families of the slain miners, represented by competent counsel.
It seems that Massey Energy Company has reached this same conclusion. Massey has now reportedly offered the families the tidy sum of $3 million apiece to avoid legal action and the corresponding bright lights of inquiry — in other words, to surrender their right to pursue justice against the company and the mine in a court of law. Although the offer is generous on its face, the offer is a simple business decision by a company that wants to protect its own interests from the impact of public disclosure of the causes of the disaster, and from the risk of a much larger verdict or settlement in civil litigation. Those families who are reporting the company’s offer are also reporting, however, that they have rejected it.
The personal injury attorneys at Passen & Powell applaud these families for having the courage to reject a lucrative settlement offer in order to pursue the truth. Only if these families stand strong and maintain their civil actions will we have the benefit of appropriate judicial scrutiny of the safety issues at the Upper Big Branch Mine, and at Massey Energy Company more generally. Without that scrutiny, or at least the threat of it, we have no assurance that the company and the mine will correct the shocking safety breaches that likely were to blame for these tragic deaths.
For a free consultation with an experienced Chicago wrongful death lawyer at Passen & Powell, call us at (312) 527-4500.