Massey settles with 4 Upper Big Branch families

August 25, 2010 by Ken Ward Jr.

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).

9 Responses to “Massey settles with 4 Upper Big Branch families”

  1. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    Massey Energy had declined comment yesterday when I wrote my story … but today, they issued the following prepared statement:

    “Massey has reached settlements with numerous families. Four are currently before the court for approval. Consistent with the families’ wishes, we are not releasing detailed information about the number of settlements, the terms of the settlements or the names of the families at this time.

    “Our goal has always been to resolve issues in an amicable
    way that provides compensation to the families, rather than personal injury attorneys. ”


  2. Bob Kincaid says:

    “Amicable,” indeed, for Massey. The fact is, those victims’ families might have been entitled to damages far in excess of lost wages. Courts take into account many other forms of damages.

    What is the value of a husband to a wife? Of a father to a child? When you consider, for instance, that a wholly speculative wage of $50K per year on a speculated 20-years-remaining work life yields a million dollars all by itself (outside of other cognizable losses), it’s hard not to reach the conclusion that Massey is likely getting away with something.

    It would be interesting to know (as Ken implies) if the Court in question has offered any rationale for sealing records beyond the desire of the parties. My native cynicism suspects no such rationale or finding will be forthcoming.

    Ken, where does the State Bar stand on issues relating to these “independent lawyers” available to review the proceedings? If Massey’s footing the bill, it certainly smells a little conflict-of-interest-y. After all, this isn’t your run-of-the-mill Guardian ad Litem situation, especially in cases where there aren’t children involved.

  3. Monty says:

    Four down, 25 to go – from strictly a loss mitigation standpoint (not that I am remotely suggesting that anyone involved is in any way regarding these settlements as anything akin to anything like that), getting this percentage of claims settled less than five months after the incident may have a significant impact on the company’s next quarterly earnings statement.

  4. davisfamily says:

    i hope you are happy with your story ken ward i hope it makes you feel real good about yourself.

  5. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    Thanks for your comment. I’ve received at least one phone call from a member of your family who was very unhappy with the story, and I certainly understood her concerns.

    But no, as a matter of fact, having to cover yet another coal-mining disaster doesn’t make me one bite happy. Quite the opposite. I would be pleased to never, ever have to write about another coal miner — or any worker — being hurt or killed on the job.

    The Gazette and I have tried very hard to be respectful of the families and I believe have been far less invasive into the families’ lives than many other media outlets I could mention. But the fact of these settlements is news, and our job here is to report the news as best we can.

    I do indeed apologize that some folks have decided to criticize the families that have decided to settle with Massey. It seems to me that doing so — or not doing so — is a very personal and difficult decision for each family, and I can only imagine the grief and the difficulty that goes into moving forward each day for the families who lost loved ones at Upper Big Branch.

    My sympathies and my prayers are with you all,
    Ken Ward Jr.

  6. Family of Lost Miner says:

    It is ridiculous that you would post the names of the four families. This should NOT be let out, you are putting the families in danger.

  7. davisfamily says:


  8. coalminerswife49 says:

    i can reporting on the mine disaster but this is heartless……………..

  9. Monty says:

    I am not in the least trying to be insensitive, but – these court records are public. Anyone can go to the courthouse and look at them. How is printing the names putting the families in danger? What are you afraid of?

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