Justices affirm $2M Boone Co. miner verdict

By Steve Korris | May 4, 2011

CHARLESTON –- Supreme Court Justices chose not to second guess Boone County jurors who awarded coal miner Stanley Stevenson almost $2 million for a wrist injury.

On April 28, the Justices affirmed a verdict holding Independence Coal liable for an accident in its Justice No. 1 mine near Madison.

"Certainly, Stevenson may have been negligent himself in what he did," the Justices wrote in an unsigned opinion. "However, the extent of his negligence, if any, was a jury question.

"In this action, under the disputed facts a reasonable jury could have rationally found for the plaintiff."

Stevenson worked as a beltman for Spartan Mining in 2005, on assignment at Justice No. 1. At the start of a shift he drove a mantrip, a rail vehicle that carries men, equipment and supplies.
After 10 minutes, he and three others in the mantrip heard a rattle and smelled heat. He stopped on a spur, where the miners determined that bolts holding a brake assembly to a brake mount had loosened.

Stevenson and electrician Mickey Hughes tightened the bolts, and the men continued down the line. Stevenson dropped the others at their work station and continued toward a remote area the miners called Glory Hole.

Halfway there, he heard the rattle and smelled heat. He stopped on a level area and secured the mantrip with blocks. He called the dispatcher, who said it would take quite a while to send a mechanic or an electrician.

As Stevenson tightened the bolts again, a mantrip carrying miners Jeff Davis and William McCloud at the end of their shift found him blocking the way.

"Although neither Davis nor McCloud witnessed the accident, Stevenson was injured at that point when his right wrist was pinned or crushed between the brake assembly and the mantrip frame," the Justices wrote. "Davis immediately came over and pulled the brake assembly away, and Stevenson removed his arm."

Davis and McCloud took him out of the mine, and an ambulance took him to Boone Memorial Hospital emergency room.

X-rays were normal, and a doctor released him to light duty.

Later, a doctor diagnosed reflex sympathetic dystrophy, a persistent pain and mobility disorder. For this disorder, a knee injury, and migraine headaches, he started receiving Social Security disability benefits.

"Stevenson never returned to work," the Justices wrote.

In 2006, he sued Spartan Mining and Independence Coal.

Spartan Mining moved for summary judgment, arguing he must pursue his claim through workers compensation, and Circuit Judge William Thompson granted it.

Independence Coal moved for summary judgment too, arguing Stevenson couldn't prove its negligence proximately caused his injury, but Thompson denied it.

Stevenson added a claim for punitive damages in 2009, as trial began, but Thompson dismissed the claim during trial.

Jurors found that Independence Coal was 100 percent negligent, that its negligence proximately caused the accident, and that Stevenson was entitled to $1,968,952.61 in compensatory damages.

Independence Coal moved for judgment as a matter of law and for a new trial.

Thompson denied the motions, finding witnesses testified that Independence Coal did not have enough electricians to keep the mantrips repaired and functional.

Independence Coal appealed, and Stevenson filed a cross appeal claiming Thompson should have allowed a claim for punitive damages.

Independence Coal argued that the injury was fortuitous and unforeseeable, but the Justices found that recurring brake problems on the mantrips were common knowledge.

They wrote that brake heads occasionally fell off mantrips while in use. They wrote that jurors heard there weren't enough electricians and mechanics.

They rejected punitive damages, however, finding that continuing repair and maintenance of mantrips and their brakes were an integral part of underground mining.

"Moreover, Stevenson was unable to explain why the brake assembly shifted, pinning or crushing his wrist between the brake assembly and the vehicle's frame," they wrote.

Justice Brent Benjamin disqualified himself, and Circuit Judge David Nibert replaced him.

Mark Atkinson and John Polak of Charleston represented Stevenson, along with Harry Hatfield and Matthew Hatfield of Madison.

A. L. Emch, Gretchen Callas, and Amber Hoback, all of Jackson Kelly in Charleston, represented Independence Coal.

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