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West Virginia widows settle mine fire wrongful death suit

West Virginia residents, perhaps more than people in any other state, are highly aware of the contributions of miners and families, who support the dangerous work they do. Coal miners' safety is compromised by working in hazardous environments. Workers and families know many coal mining injuries and deaths are preventable.

A 2006 fire at an underground coal mine in Logan County killed two miners. The men died while trying to escape the Aracoma Alma No. 1 mine owned by Massey Energy. Ten miners got out alive, but the two that didn't were unable to find safety.

Investigators learned the mine's defective ventilation unit failed, sending blinding smoke along an escape route. Miners had devices to help them breathe but weren't trained how to use them properly. The miners' deaths were caused by carbon monoxide poisoning.

The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration inspected Aracoma following the fatalities. Federal regulators determined coal mine managers and inspectors failed to do their jobs. Evidence for the wrongful death lawsuits later filed against Massey Energy and MSHA stemmed from those findings.

The widows and Massey reached undisclosed settlement terms in 2008. The 2010 MSHA suit was dismissed by a federal court as an invalid claim in 2011 but regained strength last year. A federal appellate court judge ruled MSHA could be held accountable for negligent inspections at Aracoma.

The federal agency recently agreed to a $1 million settlement. Terms of the agreement also require MSHA to create a mine fire training course, which will be taught at the Raleigh County National Mine Safety and Health Academy. Settlements don't require defendants to admit fault.

Resolving coal mining accident claims may take years. Many plaintiffs – injured miners and surviving family members – are concerned about rightful compensation as well as an acknowledgement of negligence. Legal goals seem personal, but many plaintiffs are interested in agreements that make mines safer.

Source: The Washington Post, "Feds, widows agree to settle mine fire lawsuit" Jul. 15, 2014

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