In April 2010, 29 miners lost their lives and two more were injured in a blast at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia. The former owner of the mine, Massey Energy, sold the mine to Alpha Natural Resources earlier this year. The record-setting settlement will be paid by Alpha, which in return will not face any criminal charges in the explosion.
The settlement will be divided in three parts. Families of the 29 miners killed and the two injured miners will split $46.5 million as compensation for the wrongful deaths and personal injuries that resulted from the explosion. Fines for safety violations at all of the Massey mines that Alpha acquired will be paid with $35 million of the settlement. The remaining $128 million will be dedicated to safety issues, including upgrading equipment, training of employees, and research into future mine safety. Kevin Crutchfield, CEO of Alpha, expressed satisfaction with the settlement, stating, “we’re particularly pleased that a substantial portion of the settlement is going toward furthering miner safety.”
Some families of the miners who were killed were not quite as satisfied with the settlement. One family wanted to know what charges were going to be brought against specific people. Another family member said he wants executives at Massey to be charged rather than just middle management, and he also believes the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) should be held accountable. While MSHA representatives said they will review their own handling of the situation, one administrator said they did what they could by shutting down the mine 48 times in 2009. Because MSHA cannot permanently shut down a mine, inspectors had to allow the mine to reopen once the violations were fixed. Families who receive their $1.5 million portion of the settlement are still able to pursue Los Angeles injury lawsuits, but will have the settlement amount subtracted from any award or additional settlement.
There are multiple parties that could be sued in this situation. The company that owned the mine at the time of the blast, Massey Energy, could be sued as a whole, as well as any of its employees that were involved in the situation. The report issued by MSHA shortly after the settlement showed there were 369 safety violations at the mine in April 2010, 12 of which directly contributed to the blast. A large amount of methane gas and coal dust was built up in the mine, and a spark from unsafe cutting equipment ignited the two. The disaster was made worse by the lack of functioning water sprayers, which could have kept the fire from spreading throughout the tunnels.