In case you missed it, we broke the story yesterday evening on the Gazette’s Web site that Massey Energy has settled potential wrongful death lawsuits with four of the families of miners killed in the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster.
It’s interesting to note that Massey CEO Don Blankenship has publicly urged the families to settle potential claims against the company without hiring lawyers and filing lawsuits, saying that way they can avoid giving attorneys a cut. And apparently, several of the four families who have settled are not represented by lawyers in the court proceedings seeking a judge’s approval for the deals.
Apparently, Massey has offered to pay for independent lawyers to review settlement documents with families, but it’s not clear that any of these four families took advantage of that offer.
In West Virginia, wrongful death cases can generally be settled without court approval, unless minor children are among the beneficiaries of the estates. But in some cases, lawyers for both sides seek court approval anyway to avoid any potential problems later for estate administrators if there are disputes among family members about the settlement.
Massey has confirmed that it has offered Upper Big Branch families settlements of $3 million. Other sources have said that some families were offered up to $5 million, but Massey officials flatly deny that. The company has told shareholders it has set aside nearly $129 million for costs of the disaster, including potential civil suit liabilities.
One troubling thing here is the ease with which West Virginia courts are willing to seal court records from public view, despite a Constitutional provision that declares our courts open and rulings by the West Virginia Supreme Court that judges should be as public as possible and carefully review requests for closing courtrooms and sealing documents, weighing the public’s interest in open government against any request by the parties in a case for secrecy (See here and here).