X

Thank you for sharing!

Your article was successfully shared with the contacts you provided.

Coal mining is a way of life in southern West Virginia where the latest mine disaster continues to unfold, and it’s a way of life intimately known to Bruce Stanley, a partner in the Pittsburgh office of Reed Smith. Although he never was a miner, his father and older brother were. Stanley himself has been down and dirty more than once with Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy Co., which owns the Upper Big Branch Mine where at least 25 miners were killed in a blast this week. In an earlier disaster, Stanley represented the widows of two miners killed in January 2006 when a fire broke out at Massey’s Aracoma Alma Mine No. 1 in Logan County, W.Va. That suit ended in a confidential settlement with Massey, but the Aracoma unit also pleaded guilty in 2008 to nine federal criminal counts of willful violation of mandatory safety standards and one count of making a false statement in connection with the fire. Aracoma agreed to pay a $2.5 million criminal penalty. The following Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. NLJ: At Reed Smith, you primarily do construction litigation, contract disputes and business torts. How did you get drawn into coal mining-related cases? BS: I was born in Logan County and raised in Mingo, the same county as Don Blankenship. Before law school, I worked a bit as a reporter on a West Virginia newspaper. It was in 1984 and a [United Mine Workers] strike was going on. Don Blankenship broke the union in Mingo County vis-à-vis Massey. I wasn’t raised a union boy. My father and older brother are converts basically because of the conditions they found themselves in. My father has black lung and actually worked in the Aracoma mine before Massey had it. My [older] brother is disabled from mining, and my middle brother is a recently retired federal mine inspector. Both at one time worked in Massey operations. NLJ: Besides representing the Aracoma widows, you also represented a longtime competitor of Blankenship, Hugh Caperton, whose business dispute with Massey went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. [Caperton had won a $50 million damages award, which the West Virginia Supreme Court overturned. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed that decision after finding that a West Virginia justice should have recused himself because Blankenship made $3 million in campaign contributions toward his election.] BS: I was called in to help by my friend Dave Faucett at Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney. He was representing Hugh Caperton and his company when Massey raised a challenge saying it was a potential conflict of interest to represent both. I agreed to represent Hugh. I’ve done a few other things against Massey, recently a private arbitration of coal contract disputes, and we kicked their tail pretty good. NLJ: What do you expect to see as litigation out of the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion? BS: The most obvious assumption will be these really are all workers’ compensation type of claims with statutory limits. But that’s not necessarily true. As with the case in Aracoma, if there was a knowing violation by the employer of safety rules that contributed to the injuries, these cases would be taken out from under the statutory caps — what is called a deliberate intent action in West Virginia. That would allow awards for pain and suffering. In addition, if you can demonstrate any of the upstream corporate entities were dabbling so heavily into the affairs of the subsidiary so as to exercise control, they can be held independently liable under state tort theories, and that would open the door to possible punitive damages. NLJ: Do these mine-related cases present any unusual challenges? BS: Any case against Massey presents unusual challenges. Massey, based on my experience, employs war-of-attrition tactics. For people who already have suffered substantial loss, the last thing most of them want to think about is being tied up with years of rancorous litigation with people responsible for that loss. Even in Aracoma, despite mountainous evidence on the liability side, they forced those women to go through discovery and jury selection before being willing to settle, and it was all because they had a dispute with their [insurance] carrier. Add to that the circumstances of the event and the psychological pain and suffering the families endure. These are working folks, not sophisticated corporate entities. I like to think we as lawyers have the tools and skills to even that playing field. NLJ: Isn’t it difficult to litigate against a company that is the major source of employment for the community? BS: Massey has created a lot of divisions within southern West Virginia communities. I can honestly and truthfully say, when something like this happens, the people of West Virginia will lay those differences aside and try to comfort each other and come to grips with what happened. If necessary, you can find a jury to enter a truthful, honest verdict. It may take a little while, but I’m confident you can get a fair jury and apply the law. NLJ: There has been considerable discussion about the role of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration in regulating safety. How honest and helpful is the federal investigation when these disasters occur? BS: The federal investigation into the Aracoma fire was as thorough and complete as anybody could hope, and that includes the agency’s willingness to point to its own shortcomings. We found the government was very forthcoming to share as much information as it could without compromising the investigation. At the end of the day, the operator is responsible for the safety of the mine, not the federal government. That said, it was clear to us in the Aracoma case, the relationship between the operator and the inspector was unhealthy. We’ve seen that attributed to policies in place at the time of the Bush administration, to the fact that these people eat and drink in the same communities. I do believe the one thing that Aracoma accomplished was to open the agency’s eyes, and that’s why you see the track record of citations of violations leading up to the Upper Big Branch explosion. That track record indicates somebody was trying to get their hands on what was going on in this mine.

This content has been archived. It is available through our partners, LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law.

To view this content, please continue to their sites.

Not a Lexis Advance® Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Not a Bloomberg Law Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Why am I seeing this?

LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law are third party online distributors of the broad collection of current and archived versions of ALM's legal news publications. LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law customers are able to access and use ALM's content, including content from the National Law Journal, The American Lawyer, Legaltech News, The New York Law Journal, and Corporate Counsel, as well as other sources of legal information.

For questions call 1-877-256-2472 or contact us at [email protected]

 
 

ALM Legal Publication Newsletters

Sign Up Today and Never Miss Another Story.

As part of your digital membership, you can sign up for an unlimited number of a wide range of complimentary newsletters. Visit your My Account page to make your selections. Get the timely legal news and critical analysis you cannot afford to miss. Tailored just for you. In your inbox. Every day.

Copyright © 2021 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All Rights Reserved.