West Virginia is sensitive on the issue of coal mine safety for good reason. It's personal.
The industry employs more than 17,000 of our fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, husbands and wives.
Miners know from the first moment they strap on their helmets that theirs is often a dangerous business, if one that's dramatically less so than it once was.
The facts are emphatic. In 1930, 1,619 U.S. coal miners died on the job. By 1980, the number sunk to 133. This year, through July, we're at a grand total of nine U.S. coal mining fatalities.
We thought about the industry's meteoric, if uncelebrated, improvements in worker safety as we read about the seven Logan County miners suing their employer for damages allegedly sustained during a 2006 Aracoma Coal Co. mine fire. Two men died, but none of the seven plaintiffs were seriously injured in the blaze. They instead claim to have inhaled smoke which, someday, might make them sick. They're demanding money now -- "punitive damages" -- just in case.
Like all workers, coal miners participate in our Workers' Compensation system, which guarantees they get paid for any actual injuries or damages suffered while on the job. If they had any, these men have already been made whole without argument. Punitive damages represent excess money, ostensibly paid to the plaintiffs and their lawyers as a means of punishing Aracoma Coal for its "malicious or wanton" behavior.
The miners' lawyers surely are banking on the fact that the 2006 Sago accident still looms large in Mountain State memories. In such a climate, Aracoma might be reluctant to recount the events of its unfortunate accident during a public trial, hyped with emotional rhetoric and tear-jerking testimony. Cases such as these are built to settle; odds are the company will pay the plaintiffs to go away.
That's too bad, given that mine safety has so improved over the years not thanks to lawyers and damage pay-outs, but rather technological progress spurred by vast corporate investment in miner protection measures. Money spent settling lawsuits only encourages more, and it won't be used modernizing Mountain State coal mines.
When tragedy strikes, we've always believed the greater good demands a rational response. These lawsuits strike us as grossly opportunist -- great for the lawyers and the seven men hoping to get paid, yet counterproductive to the broader cause of improving mine safety for all West Virginia miners and their families into the future.