GRUNDY, Va. -- A Virginia jury awarded a $4 million verdict to a former coal company last week in a case that has been a focus of legal attention in West Virginia for more than 15 years.

Harman Mining Corp. received the verdict Friday in Buchanan County Court in Grundy, just across the border between Virginia and West Virginia. Harman and owner Hugh Caperton claimed Massey Energy and former Chief Executive Don Blankenship drove the company out of business by telling company officials to breach a coal-supply contract with Harman that forced Caperton to declare bankruptcy.

The case that started in Boone County, W.Va., in 1998 has been heard numerous times by the West Virginia Supreme Court as well as the Virginia Supreme Court. Issues related to the case have been heard by the U.S. Supreme Court and were the basis of a John Grisham legal thriller.

Friday's Virginia verdict is much smaller than the $90 million ruling sought by Harman and Caperton and even the $50 million verdict from 2002 in Boone County, W.Va.

Caperton's attorney, Bruce Stanley of Pittsburgh, said Tuesday he found both good and bad in the verdict.

"While we're obviously thrilled that a jury has, yet again, determined that a Don Blankenship-led A.T. Massey harmed Hugh Caperton and his companies, we're also obviously disappointed that the jury didn't get the full picture as to the extent of that harm.

"As a result, we are serioulsy looking at our post-trial remedies, including an appeal to the Virginia Supreme Court on damages. We hope it doesn't come to that, to be honest. Hopefully we can get it remedied at the post-trial level."

The 2002 Boone County ruling was appealed, and the case has been in the various courts since then. Ultimately, the West Virginia Supreme Court reversed the verdict because of a forum-selection clause in the allegedly broken agreement that required disputes to be brought in Virginia.

 

Last year, the Virginia Supreme Court reversed an earlier ruling by Buchanan County Judge Henry A. Vanover in favor of Massey and sent it back to Buchanan County.

It was Caperton’s original 1998 lawsuit that inspired a John Grisham novel, “The Appeal,” and prompted the U.S. Supreme Court to issue a new standard for judges to recuse themselves.

Former West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Spike Maynard stepped aside in 2008 from the case after photographs had emerged showing him on vacation alongside former Massey CEO Don Blankenship.

Current Justice Brent Benjamin also recused himself after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2009 that he should have recused himself from the case because Blankenship had spent nearly $3 million supporting his 2004 campaign.

“Under our precedents there are objective standards that require recusal when ‘the probability of actual bias on the part of the judge or decision-maker is too high to be constitutionally tolerable,’” U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority. “Applying those precedents, we find that, in all the circumstances of this case, due process requires recusal.”

The suit that was ruled on last week had sought $56.4 million in damages for Caperton and $33 million in compensatory damages and $1.5 million in punitive damages for Caperton's three companies -- Harman Development, Harman Mining and Sovereign Coal Sales.

Alpha Natural Resources bought Massey in 2011.

"We're pleased with the outcome, especially considering that the jury determined the facts in this case did not warrant anything close to the excessive award of $90 million which the plaintiffs were seeking," Alpha spokesman Ted Pile said Tuesday. "This should finally put closure on  this long-standing case that we inherited from Massey Energy when we acquired the company in 2011."

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