BECKLEY, West Virginia — A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit by relatives of three men killed in the Upper Big Branch mine disaster who claimed that Alpha Natural Resources failed to pay them each $1.5 million as promised under a settlement with the federal government.
U.S. District Judge Irene Berger entered the dismissal order last week but sealed the opinion that explains her rationale. The Register-Herald (http://bit.ly/1hSuCfM) says the case was tossed with prejudice, meaning it cannot be refiled.
The lawsuit argued that at least eight other families were also awaiting payment and asked Berger to enforce the terms of the landmark $210 million agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice to ensure everyone got the restitution that Virginia-based Alpha had publicly promised.
Alpha has long said it fully complied with the terms of the settlement, including payments to various victims' families.
The complaint was filed by three estate administrators: Jeffrey Skeens, who lost his father, Grover Skeens, in the blast; Carolyn Davis, the widow of Charles Davis; and Owen Davis, who lost his son Cory.
It was the second time the three families have sued with claims they're entitled to more money. The first case was also dismissed.
Alpha bought Massey Energy Co. and its mines, including Upper Big Branch, after the explosion that killed 29 men in southern West Virginia in April 2010.
The lawsuits argued that all three families had agreed to confidential settlement of wrongful death lawsuits with Massey before the company was sold. But Alpha was not party to those deals, and the families say they never gave up their rights to additional restitution.
The historic federal settlement had multiple components, including a promise to pay $46.5 million in restitution to the families of the 29 victims and two other miners who were severely injured.
Upper Big Branch was the worst U.S. coal mining disaster in 40 years.
Four investigations found that worn and broken cutting equipment created a spark that ignited accumulations of coal dust and methane gas. Broken and clogged water sprayers allowed what should have been a minor flare-up to become an inferno.
The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration said the root cause was Massey's "systematic, intentional and aggressive efforts" to conceal life-threatening problems. Managers even maintained two sets of pre-shift inspection books — an accurate one for themselves, and a sanitized one for regulators.
Information from: The Register-Herald, http://www.register-herald.com