Employers have also been promised rate reductions of between 1 percent and 2 percent.
At the press conference, Underwood said, "The signing of this compromise bill signals a new era in labor, business and government relations in West Virginia. ...
"They found common ground to provide relief to employers and enhance benefits to injured workers," Underwood said.
The deal to remove major coal companies from the lawsuits was discussed in an executive session the Performance Council held at the Charleston Civic Center on March 5.
Pauline Hanson, from the ACT Foundation, objected to that secret session. Her objection was overruled.
The Performance Council's resolution to dismiss big coal companies from the lawsuits was introduced by Thad Epps, a retired Union Carbide spokesman, and seconded by Fred Tucker, a retired United Mine Workers official.
Other council members who voted to dismiss big coal companies included labor representatives Everett Sullivan, Paul Thompson and Richard Humphreys, as well as business representatives Chris Jarrett and Gene F. Bailey.
Jarrett, president of West Virginia/American Water Co., said on Friday: "After examining all the facts and all the issues, the council made a good decision. ... The [Workers' Compensation] Division did not have all its ducks in a row. It was a gray area."
The resolution criticized the lawsuits for being "founded upon certain complex theories of law which are without precedence in the field of Workers' Compensation law in West Virginia."
Major coal companies have routinely been held responsible for environmental violations by contractors, under the 1977 federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. During the 1990s, several major West Virginia coal companies spent millions of dollars to pay fines and perform reclamation work for problems left by contractors.
The resolution also criticized the cost of the lawsuits. "Outside litigation expenses to date have totaled $3 million. ... The Division may expect to incur ongoing outside litigation expenses of $30,000 per month."
The first lawsuit, filed against Bluestone Coal Co. owned by James Justice II of Beckley, was scheduled to go to trial last July before McDowell County Circuit Judge Booker Stephens, but was delayed at the coal company's request.
Other defendants who will benefit from Friday's decision are: Eaglehawk Carbon Inc., owned by James O. Bunn, and three companies - Hampden Coal Co., Chafin Branch Coal Co. and Gilbert Imported Hardwoods - owned by James "Buck" Harless.
Several major coal companies were never sued, including: Arch Mineral Corp., Ashland Coal Co., Cannelton Coal Co. and Cyprus-Amax Coal Co.