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More Sago suits filed

Nine new lawsuits were filed Wednesday by relatives of miners killed in the Sago Mine disaster, and this time several families targeted New York billionaire Wilbur Ross for his role in managing mine owner International Coal Group.

The new suits also add two Sago electrical contractors as defendants, and target delays in efforts to rescue the miners trapped by the Jan. 2 explosion.

Suits were filed Wednesday in Kanawha Circuit Court on behalf of the estates and families of miners Tom Anderson, Jerry Lee Groves, George Junior Hamner, Terry Helms, Fred Ware Jr., Jackie Weaver and Marshall Winans.

Also, new suits were filed by Ann Merideth, the daughter of miner James Bennett, and by John Groves, the brother of miner Jerry Lee Groves, and other members of Groves’ family.

In August, the first suits over the Sago disaster were filed by the estates of James Bennett, Marty Bennett and by Randal McCloy Jr., the sole survivor of the disaster.

So far, suits have been filed concerning 10 of the 13 miners who were deep inside the Sago Mine when the explosion occurred.

The three cases filed in August have been consolidated before Kanawha Circuit Judge Charles King, and it is likely that the new cases will end up before King as well.

ICG spokesman Ira Gamm declined comment Wednesday afternoon. ICG general counsel Roger Nicholson has said previously that the company was not negligent and would fight lawsuits over the disaster.

At about 6:30 a.m. Jan. 2, an explosion ripped through the Upshur County mine. One miner, fireboss Terry Helms, was killed by the explosion.

Surrounded by smoke and toxic fumes, 12 other miners took shelter behind a makeshift barricade. Eleven of them succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning before rescuers reached them 41 hours later. Only McCloy survived.

It was the worst coal-mining disaster in West Virginia in nearly 40 years.

Several of the suits filed Wednesday allege that ICG and its operating subsidiary, Wolf Run Mining, “failed to take timely and appropriate action” to try to rescue the trapped miners.

Company officials, the lawsuits allege, did not promptly notify government regulators, prepare an appropriate rescue plan, or promptly notify mine rescue teams and ask them to come immediately to the Sago Mine.

The lawsuits also allege that ICG and Wolf Run “engaged in conduct intended to obstruct a full and complete investigation” by miners’ families and their lawyers.

Company officials, the suits allege, discouraged mine employees “from discussing their knowledge about the mine, the explosion at the mine, and the events following the explosion with relatives of the miners who died or were injured as a result of the explosion, with their representatives.”

The suits seek compensation from Wolf Run Mining, which operated the mine and employed the miners, under the “deliberate intent” exception to lawsuit immunity given to West Virginia employers who have workers’ compensation insurance.

In such cases, the workers must prove, among other things, that the employer was aware of specific unsafe working conditions that presented a major risk of serious injury or death.

The new lawsuits allege that Wolf Run was aware of “inadequate protection from lightning strikes and explosions, inadequate planning for and sealing, ... inadequate planning and preparation for mine emergencies, the failure to promptly notify the mine rescue teams and the state and federal authorities and otherwise the knowing, willful and deliberate exposure of Sago miners to unsafe working conditions.”

The new suits accuse ICG, Wolf Run’s parent company, of negligence and add Ross and his company, WL Ross & Co. LLC, as a defendant.

Ross, a New York billionaire who specializes in buying out troubled companies, has controlled the Sago Mine’s owner since at least 2001.

The suits noted that in October 2004, ICG hired Ross’ company to provide “advisory services” for a fee of $500,000 per quarter. Ross, the suits allege, was aware of unsafe conditions at the Sago Mine and should have advised ICG that such conditions were not tolerable.

The suits also name as defendants Burrell Mining Products, which made the foam “Omega” blocks that did not contain the explosion in a sealed area of the mine, and Raleigh Mine and Industrial Supply, which distributed the blocks. Also named was Sago contractor, GMS Mine Repair, which helped to build the failed seals.

Further, the suits allege that CSE Corp. provided Sago miners with defective emergency breathing devices that “afforded less time for the trapped miners to develop an implement a viable plan for survival and foreclosed any reasonable possibility of escape.”

In a new twist, several of the suits filed Wednesday named as defendants two Sago Mine electrical contractors, Hughes Electric Supply, and Electrotech Inc. The suits allege that the companies did not properly install or maintain electrical systems at the mine.

Lawyers representing the various Sago families include Allan N. Karlin of Morgantown, Paul R. Cranston of Morgantown, Hunter B. Mullens of Philippi, and Scott Segal of Charleston.

Staff writer Andrew Clevenger contributed to this report. To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.


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