GRUNDY, Va. – A Virginia circuit judge has ordered a new trial in a high-profile case that, at times, has been heard by the United States, Virginia and West Virginia supreme courts.
Judge Henry Vanover wrote in a Jan. 7 letter that there should be a new trial in Caperton v. Massey Energy after a $5 million jury award for Hugh Caperton and his now-bankrupt Harman Mining Corp. in May.
Vanover said in the letter that the award was insufficient and that it “likely reflects a clear misunderstanding of the facts.” He also called the verdict “plainly inadequate and unjust” and said a new trial on damages in the case is needed.
The judge said a Massey attorney had made a statement during closing arguments that wasn't backed up by evidence in the trial.
In 1998, Caperton originally sued Massey, saying Massey CEO Don Blankenship told officials to break a coal supply contract with Harman and to take other actions that forced the company into bankruptcy.
In 2001, a Virginia jury had awarded Caperton's companies $6 million for breach of contract. Later, another case was filed in West Virginia alleging fraud and tortious interference. That case brought a $50 million jury award in 2002, but that was overturned in 2007 by the West Virginia Supreme Court, which said the case needed to be filed in Virginia as well.
The case was heard again in 2008 by the West Virginia Supreme Court after Blankenship's personal ties to former Justice and lifelong friend Spike Maynard were revealed. The court issued the same ruling.
But Caperton appealed that ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, seeking the recusal of West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Brent Benjamin, who the U.S. Supreme Court said benefited from Blankenship's political spending in the 2004 race when he defeated incumbent Justice Warren McGraw.
The U.S. Supreme Court ordered the case to be reheard by the West Virginia Supreme Court. In 2008, the West Virginia high court heard the case a third time and issued the same ruling to dismiss the case.
Caperton then filed the case in Virginia in 2010, and it originally was dismissed. He appealed that to the Virginia Supreme Court, which said the case should be heard. That resulted in the $5 million May verdict and this week's letter announcing a new trial.
A spokesman for Alpha Natural Resources, which acquired Massey in 2011, said the company is reviewing its options in light of Vanover's letter.
Bruce Stanley, a Pittsburgh attorney who has represented Caperton through the legal journey, says the final order hasn't been issued, but that he figures the case will go to trial once again later this year.
“Hugh Caperton continues in his battle to find justice in this case," Stanley said. "Until it’s gotten, the fight will continue."
Blankenship currently is facing federal charges of covering up safety issues that led to a 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners at the Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County. He has pleased not guilty, and the trial is set for April 20.
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