CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Lawyers for one of the nation's largest makers of respirators have opened a new legal front in a longstanding dispute over black lung disease: a suit seeking to hold the former Massey Energy responsible for illnesses that miners have blamed on allegedly faulty breathing devices.
Attorneys for Mine Safety Appliances, or MSA, filed the suit Wednesday against Massey's new owner, Alpha Natural Resources, in Mingo Circuit Court. They also named former Massey CEO Don Blankenship as a defendant.
Basically, the complaint alleges that Massey officials for years did not comply with federal regulations that require mine operators to maintain proper ventilation and limit miners' exposure to coal dust that causes deadly black lung disease.
MSA lawyers filed the complaint to make Alpha a third-party defendant in an existing suit filed by one-time Massey foreman Dusty Dotson, who developed lung disease after working for years in underground coal mines.
The suit by Dotson against MSA is one of hundreds of such cases filed in the coalfields against manufacturers of respirators such as MSA and 3M Corp. that miners allege were faulty and caused or contributed their black lung disease.
But MSA argues the blame really lies with Massey, citing repeated ventilation and dust-control violations at three different operations where Dotson worked, including the Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine where two workers died in a January 2006 fire.
MSA is expected to file more suits in similar situations in response to allegations that its respirators were to blame for miners' contracting black lung.
"For years, our company has been the target of these lawsuits, and we think that target has to shift," said Mark Deasy, a spokesman for Cranberry Township, Pa.-based MSA. "You have to look at the root cause."
Officials from Alpha Natural Resources offered no immediate comment on the MSA complaint.
The case by MSA comes as the Obama administration works to finalize new regulations to toughen the legal limits for coal dust in underground mines, and amid new scientific studies that show miners continue to die from black lung, despite a 1969 federal law that set eliminating the disease as a national goal.
And in May, an independent investigation of the April 2010 disaster at Massey's Upper Big Branch Mine reported the "alarming finding" that 71 percent of the disaster victims had black lung.