Massey Energy Co. Chief Executive Officer Don Blankenship must face two lawsuits holding him personally responsible for a West Virginia mine explosion that killed 29 people, a judge ruled.
The widows of William Griffith and Ronald Maynor, who were killed in the April 5 blast at Massey’s Performance Coal unit, claim the Richmond, Virginia-based company and Blankenship were responsible for violations of federal and state safety regulations that led to the explosion. The CEO was “willfully negligent” in his direction of the company subsidiaries operating the mine, they said in separate complaints.
Blankenship asked to be dismissed from the lawsuits, contending they failed to state a valid claim. West Virginia Circuit Court Judge William Thompson denied the motion in a Nov. 24 order. He didn’t rule on the merits of the widows’ claims.
“Plaintiff’s complaint provides fair notice to defendant Blankenship of the plaintiff’s claim made against him, one that states a valid claim under West Virginia law,” Thompson wrote in his order in the Maynor case. He entered an identical decision in the Griffith suit.
The explosion at Performance Coal’s Upper Big Branch operation in Montcoal, West Virginia, the worst U.S. mine disaster in 40 years, set off federal and state investigations into its cause.
The lawsuits were filed by Marlene Griffith, the widow of William Griffith, 54, who had worked at the mine since 1992, and Helen Maynor, widow of Ronald Maynor, 31, who started there in 2006.
The claims against the Massey CEO are “a judicial lynching of Don Blankenship,” his lawyer, Thomas Flaherty, said at an Oct. 20 hearing on the motion to dismiss the lawsuits.
Flaherty and Jeff Gillenwater, Massey spokesman, didn’t immediately return calls today for comment.
Blankenship, 60, was too far removed from supervision of the mine to be held liable and claims against him should be dismissed, Flaherty told Thompson at the hearing.
“Blankenship is running the great-grandparent” of the Upper Big Branch mine, Flaherty said. “He has control of UBB from the 60,000-foot level.”
“Don Blankenship ran these companies negligently,” Mark Moreland, the widows’ attorney, said during the October hearing. “The cause of action is negligence.”
The cases are Griffith v. Performance Coal Co., 10-C-91, and Maynor v. Performance Coal Co., 10-C-122, Circuit Court, Boone County, West Virginia (Madison).
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