More Sago suits filed

By John O'Brien | Nov 16, 2006

CHARLESTON - Just a week after Kanawha Circuit Judge Charles King suspended any action on the trio of lawsuits filed in August over the Sago Mine disaster, nine more suits were filed Wednesday by relatives of more of the miners who were killed.

King, who had consolidated the three cases for the purpose of Discovery, will likely handle these new cases as well. He had said at a hearing Nov. 6 that there was potential for more suits to be filed.

On Jan. 2, a group of workers entered the Sago Mine, and an explosion killed one of them and sealed another 12 underground.

Only Randal McCloy survived. He and the estates of James Bennett and Marty Bennett had filed suit in August.

The new suits add Hughes Electric Supply and Electrotech as defendants. The companies were electrical contractors at the mine, and the complaints say they did not properly install or maintain the electrical systems.

They also add WL Ross and Co., claiming that the New York billionaire has had an ownership stake in the mine since at least 2001.

All of the defendants from the first three suits are still charged in the new suits. They are: International Coal Group; Wolf Run Mining Co., frequently known as Anker West Virginia Mining Co.; Burrell Mining Products; Raleigh Mine and Industrial Supply; CSE Corp.; and GMS Mine Repair and Maintenance.

The nine cases were filed on behalf of the estates and families of miners Tom Anderson, Jerry Groves, George Hamner, Terry Helms, Fred Ware Jr., Jackie Weaver and Marshall Winans, as well as Ann Meredith, James Bennett's daughter, and John Groves, Jerry Groves' brother.

Lawyers representing the plaintiffs include Morgantown attorneys Allan Karlin and Paul Cranston, Philippi attorney Hunter Mullens and Charleston attorney Scott Segal.

The suits say the Sago Mine was cited for more than 200 federal safety violations in 2005 and another 144 state violations. The incident rate at the mine, they add, was approximately three times the national average.

Despite that, ICG, the owner of the mine with its subsidiary Wolf Run, denied responsibility for the incident in a statement.

"The outcome of the Sago mine explosion was indeed tragic. However, that tragic outcome does not translate into negligence on the part of the company," it said.

McCloy reported for work as a roof bolter on Jan. 2 and says the mine seals were Omega blocks, foam-composite structures, instead of pricier and sturdier cement supports.

The Omega blocks were not strong enough, the lawsuit says. They were manufactured by Burrell and sold by Raleigh Mine and Industrial Supply. The suits also blame ICG and its contractor, GMS Mine Repair, for not building the seals to abide by government regulations.

The lawsuits also say that four of the miners' 12 self-contained self-rescuer packs provided by CSE Corp. did not work properly and had to be discarded, leading to eight of the miners having to share their oxygen with the four who did not have rescue packs.

And when they attempted to bang on the metal roof, as miners are instructed to do when trapped, the lawsuits say they had to take off the packs because they were too cumbersome.

The lawsuits also blame ICG for not correcting the initial reports that 12 miners had been found alive. Families of the miners celebrated for almost three hours before they received word there was only one survivor.

It was the worst coal-mining disaster in the state in almost 40 years.

ICG has said that it wishes to have activity on the cases suspended until federal and state investigations are finished. The company said it expects to be absolved of responsibility when those investigations conclude.

ICG maintains that a lightning strike ignited methane gas that had accumulated naturally in a mined-out and sealed-off area.

The Sago Mine has been the subject of several other lawsuits, too. Three Upshur County residents filed suit in Upshur Circuit Court against ICG and two local trucking companies, citing excessive noise and mining-related pollution.

One of the petitioners, Thomas W. Bacon, owns over six acres along Sago Road and lives only 200 yards from the Sago Mine. Since the opening of the Sago Mine in 2000, it is claimed that each of the plaintiffs has been subjugated to white gravel and black coal dust deposits on their properties. The plaintiffs argue that their property values have consequently declined.

In September, an Upshur County couple who unknowingly bought land directly above the Sago Mine sued the couple that sold it to them, claiming they did not disclose that it was above a mine shaft.

"After purchasing the real estate from the defendants, the plaintiffs discovered as a result of the recent Sago mine disaster that their home that was purchased from the defendants was located immediately above one of the mine shafts of the now infamous Sago mine," Thomas and Trudy Crawford's complaint says.

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