In an unexpected, if not unprecedented, criminal trial, the former CEO of Massey Energy Company Don Blankenship was sentenced to a year in prison on conspiracy charges for violating federal mine safety laws.
As Senator Joe Manchin III, who was the governor of West Virginia when an explosion in a Massey Energy-owned Upper Big Branch mine killed 29 miners in 2010, told The New York Times, “I never heard of anyone thinking that that could happen or would happen, because it had never happened before.”
The mine explosion created a litany of litigation, including a $210 million settlement, the largest ever following an American mine disaster. Massey’s mine safety track record and involvement in the explosion were horrendous:
- Massey was cited for 600 mine safety violations in less than a year and a half, 50 of which charged the company with “unwarrantable failure” to comply with safety standards;
- Employees told investigators the company had a system for alerting them when safety inspectors arrived at the mine and even used miners to cover up safety violations; and
- Massey kept a second set of external set books just for safety officials, completely fabricating mine safety records.
Even with Massey’s transgressions, criminal charges (let alone convictions) against corporate executives are exceedingly rare. Or, at least, they have been. Shortly after Blankenship’s conviction, the Department of Justice released a memo detailing plans to increase criminal prosecutions for worker safety violations.
As for Blankenship, his attorneys are appealing his sentence, which includes a year behind bars, a $250,000 fine, and a year of supervised release. It’s unclear, however, how much precedent his case will carry. As University of Michigan law professor David M. Uhlmann told the Times, “there are not likely to be a lot of cases where senior executives were involved to the degree that Don Blankenship was in the day-to-day running of the company.”
Many of the families of deceased miners filed wrongful death lawsuit against Massey energy. If you’ve been injured in an accident, you may want to consult an experienced personal injury attorney regarding your own lawsuit.
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