CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Massey Energy officials tricked the families of some Upper Big Branch miners into early wrongful-death settlements that have proven inadequate, given evidence of safety violations and criminal conduct linked to the fatal April 2010 explosion, according to a lawsuit quietly filed last month.
Edith May Willingham alleges that Massey officials, including then-CEO Don Blankenship, "fraudulently induced" her to settle claims regarding the death of her husband, Benny, who was one of 29 miners killed in the disaster.
The lawsuit names as defendants Massey and Alpha Natural Resources, which bought Massey in June 2011, along with Blankenship, Alpha CEO Kevin Crutchfield and nine other Massey officers and board members.
"It is the plaintiff's belief that the defendants possess information regarding this tragic event that they intentionally withheld from her, while those individuals who were representatives of the company were much better schooled and educated and in a better position to entice Mrs. Willingham into an early settlement," the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit says other families were in similar positions, and seeks class-action status to represent any families that accepted "an initial settlement offer." It alleges Massey also defrauded the circuit court in Boone County by withholding information that affected the value of the wrongful-death claims.
"The defendants, in addition to being in a superior bargaining position, intentionally withheld information from the settling parties and the court that would have been pertinent to their decision-making process," the lawsuit alleges.
In the weeks immediately following the disaster, Massey officials visited the homes of the disaster's victims and offered each of the families $3 million settlements, on top of death benefits that included health insurance and college tuition.
The deals were aimed at heading off the formal filing of wrongful-death lawsuits against the company, avoiding lengthy litigation and putting a firm number on the company's potential liabilities.
At least four families quickly accepted the settlements, and an undetermined number later made deals with Massey without formally suing the coal giant. Other families settled later, many of them after a mediation session between company and family lawyers in early January at Glade Springs Resort near Daniels.
Federal, state and independent investigators have blamed the disaster on a long list of Massey safety violations that allowed a small spark on improperly maintained mining equipment to cause a methane ignition that quickly grew into a huge coal-dust explosion.
In December, Alpha reached a more than $200 million settlement with U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin, avoiding criminal prosecution, but agreeing to pay MSHA fines and institute various safety reforms. A sprawling criminal investigation that already has secured one conviction and two guilty pleas of mine employees continues, with prosecutors indicating they are trying to move up Massey's corporate ladder.
In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, when word about the company's discussions with families began to leak out, Massey issued a statement that defended its actions, but also warned families about potential legal fees eating into any settlements.