LOGAN – The widows of two men who died in a January mine fire have filed a lawsuit against Massey Energy Co. and Don Blankenship, saying the CEO puts profits ahead of safety.
The suit, filed Tuesday in Logan Circuit Court, names Delorice Bragg and Freda Hatfield as the plaintiffs. They are the widows of Don Bragg and Elvis Hatfield, the two men who died Jan. 19 in a mine fire at the Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine. Massey subsidiary A.T. Massey Coal Co. and Aracoma Coal Co. Inc. also are named as defendants.
To see the complaint, click here.
Hatfield, 47, and Bragg, 33, died after becoming separated from the rest of their crew when the mine filled with smoke.
"We're one month away from the one-year anniversary of these boys' deaths and these poor women are getting ready to experience their first Christmas without their husbands," Bruce Stanley, a Pittsburgh attorney representing the widows, told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
He also said Massey, the nation's fourth-largest coal producer, puts profits over safety.
"That's not right, and the widows intend to do what they can about that," he told the AP.
In the 18-page complaint, the women accuse Blankenship of "personally engendering a corporate attitude of indifference and hostility towards safety measures which stood in the way of profit."
The complaint cites a memo Blankenship sent in October 2005 to all deep mine superintendents.
"If any of you have been asked by your group presidents, your supervisors, engineers or anyone else to do anything other than run coal (i.e. – build overcasts, do construction jobs, or whatever) you need to ignore them and run coal," the complaint quotes the memo. "This memo is necessary only because we seem not to understand that coal pays the bills."
The suit says that management approach led to unsafe work conditions that led to the deaths of Bragg and Hatfield.
"The Massey Defendants' corporate practices, and this memorandum specifically, were willful, wanton, and reckless towards federal and state safety laws, and towards human life and dignity," the complaint states.
Blankenship told the AP on Tuesday that the "memo doesn't mean what the lawyers suggest it means." He said the memo refers to "a specific situation and there's really not much I can say about it."
Still, the suit cites mine foreman Donald Hagy's testimony that he understood the memo meant safety projects should not slow production.
The suit also singles out Blankenship, saying he "effectively instituted his personal drive for increasing company profits at all costs (including the safety of subsidiaries' employees) as Massey corporate policy.
"Don Blankenship, and the Massey corporations under his leadership, have a long history of negligence, hostility, and/or reckless and wanton indifference to labor safety and working conditions."
It goes on to say Blankenship's actions "caused severe emotional distress and suffering to Don Bragg and Elvis Hatfield as they fought for their lives, attempting to escape their work area and passage ways which had filled with smoke du to the atrocious safety standards in Aracoma Mine, becoming lost in the thick, choking and blinding smoke, and ultimately suffocating and dying."
The lawsuit accuses Aracoma Coal of numerous "egregious" safety violations. It says A.T. Massey and Massey Energy are negligent for failing to make sure Aracoma Coal provided a safe work place.
Massey officials on Tuesday called the allegations made in the suit false.
The widows seek judgment jointly and severally of compensatory and punitive damages for the pre-death pain, suffering and mental anguish of the deceased men; compensatory and punitive damages for their wrongful deaths under the West Virginia Wrongful Death Act; court costs and attorney fees; pre- and post-judgment interest; and other relief.
Gilbert attorney Tonya L. Hatfield also is listed as an attorney for the women. The case has been assigned to Circuit Judge Roger L. Perry.
Logan Circuit Court case number: 06-C-372