Saturday, November 25, 2006

Widow's Lawsuit Targets "Services" Firms

Last week, the widow of a coal miner filed a private wrongful-death lawsuit against several companies that provided "management, engineering and safety services" to her husband's employer.

The Harlan Daily Enterprise had a detailed report. Workers' families can rarely or never sue the direct employer for an on-the-job death. That right was traded off long ago in exchange for set workers' compensation payments that do not require a lawsuit to obtain, although it's commonly recognized that in today's terms, these payments are low.

Some selections from the Enterprise story:

The legal team representing the family of deceased miner Russell Cole is hopeful that a jury trial into allegations of miscommunication and a lack of training at Stillhouse Mining LLC will take place in the next year.

A wrongful death lawsuit filed Thursday by Cole's widow, Claudia Cole, of Clutts, is seeking more than $65 million from the Virginia companies that oversee the Cloverlick mine. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in London, accuses the defendants of “careless, reckless, malicious and negligent acts” in regards to Russell Cole's August 2005 death at Stillhouse Mine No. 1.

The lawsuit alleges that Black Mountain Resources LLC, Harlan Resources LLC, Cumberland Land Corp. and Cumberland Resources Corp. - all of which provide management, engineering and safety services to Stillhouse Mining LLC - failed “to ensure that Stillhouse Mining LLC complies with all mining and safety laws and regulations.”

Claudia Cole, who is pushing for tougher legislation to improve communication at mine sites, said on Friday that she is also optimistic that she and her family will be granted a trial...

An investigation by the state Office of Mine Safety and Licensing found inadequate coordination and communication from the Stillhouse mine management, along with improper training about the method of pillar extraction and the contents of the approved roof control pillar plan. The state released a report on the investigation in December 2005.

Attorney Tony Oppegard, who also represented families during hearings into the Kentucky Darby Mine No. 1 explosion in Holmes Mill, said the companies listed in Claudia Cole's complaint have 30 days to respond...

“The highest priority has to be Claudia's family. She (Claudia) is the sole means of support now. This is to help them financially so she can take care of her children,” Oppegard said. “No amount of money could replace her husband. Everyone knows that. But this is how our judicial system works.”

Oppegard said Russell Cole and Wilder essentially “walked into a death trap” at Stillhouse Mining LLC due to the lack of communication and training.

Ross Kegan, vice president of operations at Black Mountain Resources LLC, said on Friday that his company has not seen the complaint...

Also, from the AP story on the lawsuit:

...Another miner, Brandon Wilder, 23, was killed in the collapse. Wilder's body was recovered about eight hours after the collapse, but two more rock falls hindered the search and injured two people.

The deaths prompted $360,000 in federal fines against Stillhouse Mining.

They also focused attention on so-called retreat mining, a practice that has been blamed for the deaths of at least 17 coal miners in the past seven years. The process requires the removal of coal pillars, which hold up the roof.

The proposed federal fines against Stillhouse Mining were "On Hold," as of today, according to MSHA's data retrieval system.


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