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Massey settles with four Upper Big Branch families

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Massey Energy has reached settlements of potential wrongful-death lawsuits with the families of at least four of the coal miners killed in the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, according to court records and officials involved.

One of the deals has already received court approval and hearings on two other settlements were scheduled for Tuesday.

Terms of the settlements were not made public, and Boone Circuit Judge William Thompson sealed all records related to the deals.

Twenty-nine miners died in the April 5 explosion at the mine operated by Massey's Performance Coal Co. subsidiary. Mine safety experts believe the explosion was likely caused by an ignition of methane gas and made far worse by a buildup of highly explosive coal dust.

None of the families in the four settlements had actually filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Massey or Performance Coal over the disaster.

Only two such casees have been filed to date, on behalf of the estates of miners William Griffith and Ronald Maynor. Several other families have retained lawyers and those lawyers have been investigating the explosion and preparing possible litigation.

Thompson has already approved a settlement with the estate of miner Rick Lane. Petitions for approval of settlement with the families of Timmy Davis Sr., Rex Mullins and James Mooney were filed on Aug. 11 and are pending in Boone Circuit Court, court records indicate.

Under West Virginia law, wrongful-death settlements in cases where minor children are among the estate beneficiaries require circuit court approval to ensure the settlement terms are fair and reasonable. In other wrongful-death matters where legal complaints have not been filed, lawyers from both sides often seek court approval so that the deal is on the record.

Massey has confirmed that it offered Upper Big Branch families settlements of $3 million each. Other sources have said some families were offered up to $5 million, depending on the age of the miners who died and the number of dependents they had. Massey spokesman Micah Ragland said that was incorrect, and that the company has not offered anyone a settlement of more than $3 million.

In the weeks after the disaster, Blankenship publicly urged the miners' families to settle with Massey without hiring lawyers and filing suits to avoid "having large legal bills or having to share it with a plaintiffs' attorney."

Massey lawyers filed the papers seeking court approval of the Upper Big Branch settlements, and none of the four families involved was represented by attorneys in those filings, officials said.

Initially, Thompson had sealed from public viewing all records concerning the Upper Big Branch settlements. Court officials could not reveal even the case numbers or names of the families involved.

After the Gazette inquired about the documents, Thompson instructed court officials to release the case numbers, names and the dates of the court filings. All other information about the cases remain sealed.

Thompson said Tuesday that both sides had asked for the settlement documents to be sealed.

Under West Virginia law, there is a general presumption that courts and court documents are open to the public.

Before sealing records, judges are required by Supreme Court rulings to determine whether "fair administration of justice or other compelling public policies" warrant secrecy. Judges must also allow "all interested parties to be heard" on the issue and consider alternatives to secrecy. The Supreme Court has also ruled that judges must make specific findings about their reasons for sealing court files, to make enough of a record for appellate review.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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