By Gerald M. Stern, Random House, New York, N.Y. 145 pages, $20

Coal has for centuries fueled the world’s industry, warmed its homes and work places and provided a livelihood for uncountable thousands. “The Scotia Widows” illustrates the frightful human price the commodity has exacted. The book demonstrates as well how much a resourceful lawyer, backed by courageous clients, can accomplish to overcome obstacles in the righting of wrongs.

On March 9, 1976, methane gas exploded in the Scotia Mine in Eastern Kentucky. The explosion trapped 15 miners. They soon died, poisoned by carbon monoxide generated by the combustion of methane. The accident made widows of 15 women, all of them young. It left 24 children fatherless.

The author undertook to represent the widows. He had left Arnold & Porter to set up a small firm in Washington. He had successful experience in mining-accident litigation. Investigation convinced him that the circumstances of the Scotia explosion called for damages beyond what the Kentucky workers’ compensation statute allowed. He concluded that Scotia Coal Co., which owned and operated the mine, had subordinated the safety of its employees to the health of its profit-and-loss statement.

Two problems, one of law and the other of fact, confronted Stern as plaintiffs’ counsel. First, the workers’ compensation statute gave Scotia Coal Company an ironclad defense. Could that corporation’s parent, Blue Diamond Coal Co., be sufficiently distinguished from its wholly owned subsidiary to impose liability on the parent for the pain and suffering of the miners and the losses of their surviving spouses and children?

Secondly, did any wrongful act or omission of Blue Diamond qualify as proximate cause of the accident? With clarity of expression and a reasonable degree of modesty, Stern recounts the ups and downs of his and his colleagues’ efforts to find favorable answers to both questions.

An extralegal problem also arose. Paradoxically, the community, composed in large part of miners and their families, sided not with the widows but with the defendants. His clients, says the author, felt “ostracized by their families and friends for taking on ‘Big Daddy Coal.’” Some, in an area beset with poverty, considered the widows greedy. Others appeared to fear that too large a judgment might drive a major local employer out of business. One plaintiff had her home burglarized and vandalized. Another committed suicide. Yet the others insisted on carrying on. The author speaks repeatedly and convincingly of their courage in so doing.

Eventually, Lady Luck helped impressive professional diligence achieve a happy ending. For months the trial judge gave plaintiffs a hard time, placing their recovery in serious jeopardy. Then, with things looking their darkest, an anonymous phone call tipped Stern off that the judge had failed to disclose a financial interest in coal mining. With this fact publicized, His Honor asked to have the widows’ case, along with two others, reassigned. He gave as a reason the overcrowded condition of his docket.

That development made it clear sailing to what the author calls “the largest per-person settlement ever obtained from a coal company in a coal mine disaster.” It included a hefty but well-earned fee for the author’s firm.

To this reviewer, the book raises the question whether coal is worth the price society pays for it. In the book’s prologue a journalist is quoted as saying, “Coal widows are as common as lunch pails in Eastern Kentucky.” According to the author himself, “[R]ecent coal mine explosions in Utah and West Virginia prove we have learned very little since Scotia.” Stern accuses the U. S. Mine Safety and Health Administration of responding “more quickly to the coal operators and their lobbyists than it does to the safety needs of coal miners.”

Not all readers will join this reviewer in the question posed at the beginning of the preceding paragraph. Many, it seems safe to predict, will agree that “The Scotia Widows” demonstrates again that our profession is a craft that can be mastered and perfected.

Walter Barthold has retired from the practice of law in New York City.