Criminal conviction for CEO years after coal mine explosion

Dec 17 2015

Many people don’t realize that workers’ compensation insurance contains what is supposed to be a mutually beneficial trade-off for workers and employers. Injured workers can usually expect their injury claims to be paid quickly and efficiently, while employers can protect themselves against the time and expense associated with defending themselves in a lawsuit.

Often, workers’ compensation is the “exclusive remedy” for a workplace injury. But there are some instances in which workers may wish to pursue a lawsuit instead – usually because their employer caused the injury through intentional actions or a reckless disregard for safety. In rare cases, employer misconduct leading to injury or death can result in criminal prosecution.

Denver readers may remember news stories about the 2010 explosion at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia that left 29 workers dead. The mine had a history of safety violations leading to injury, illness and death. And a subsequent investigation into the catastrophe revealed that Massey Energy, the company in charge of the mine, regularly cut corners and violated mine safety laws.

Earlier this month, the former CEO of Massey Energy, Don Blankenship, was convicted of conspiring to violate safety standards at the UBB mine. When he is sentenced early next year, he faces up to a year in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.

Families of the deceased miners have expressed satisfaction that Blankenship was criminally convicted. However, many likely believe that his potential punishment is far too light.

Some industries and jobs are inherently dangerous. But workers who take such jobs should be able to trust that their employers have taken every reasonable safety precaution to reduce the risks of workplace accidents and injuries. When employers prioritize profits over the health and wellbeing of their workers, catastrophes like this one are a predictable consequence.