Justices review $1.9 million award to miner who skipped work
CHARLESTON –- If coal miner George Peters had worked for two days, he would have made a couple hundred bucks. Instead, he skipped work and made a couple million.
Boone County jurors awarded him $1,855,107, finding that Rivers Edge Mining improperly fired him.
Now the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals must decide whether Circuit Judge William Thompson conducted a fair trial.
At oral arguments on Feb. 24, Rivers Edge attorney David Morrison of Clarksburg said he moved for mistrial three times.
"The judge simply didn't listen to us," Morrison said.
The verdict included $1 million in punitive damages, but Justice Margaret Workman expressed doubts.
"That doesn't seem like a punitive damages case," she said.
In 2004, Peters filed a workers' compensation claim for wrist and shoulder injuries. He received temporary benefits and continued working a pallet business he owned.
When a doctor released him to return to mining, Rivers Edge called him to work.
He didn't show up.
Rivers Edge hired a private investigator, who found him working at his pallet business.
Rivers Edge fired him under a provision in its union contract allowing termination for two days of unexcused absence.
Peters filed a union grievance, and an arbitrator found that he violated the two-day rule.
Peters then sued Rivers Edge, alleging discrimination under workers' compensation law.
In 2007, jurors awarded him $171,167 in back pay, $513,410 in "front pay" for lost future earnings, $200,000 for embarrassment and loss of dignity, and $1 million in punitive damages.
At oral arguments, Morrison said Judge Thompson didn't let jurors know that the arbitrator found a violation of the two-day rule.
Morrison said Thompson allowed Peters to relitigate the two-day rule.
He said nothing in law allowed front pay in retaliatory discharge and the amount was speculative.
"This is a person that is perfectly healthy," he said.
Justice Menis Ketchum asked if he objected to punitive damages. Morrison said he did.
"I simply don't see any evidence of malicious conduct here," Morrison said. "I don't see reprehensible conduct."
For Peters, Mark Atkinson of Charleston said jurors found a discriminatory motive.
Ketchum said that in an order after the verdict, Thompson upheld punitive damages because Rivers Edge performed surveillance.
"I don't see why you can't see if someone is working on another job," Ketchum said.
Workman said the investigator walked up to Peters and spoke to him.
"He wasn't peeking or hiding or hanging from a strap in a tree," she said.
Atkinson said he presented evidence for front pay. He said Peters sought other employment but "no one would hire him."