“Representative government and trial by juryare the heart and lungs of liberty. Without, we have no other fortification against being ridden like horses, fleeced like sheep, worked like cattle, and fed and clothed like swine and hounds.”(John Adams, Lawyer and American Founding Father)
I don’t think anyone can debate the fact that West Virginians have been subject to a long history of environmental abuse which has led to the injury and death of many miners, chemical plant workers, and even those of the general population resulting from chemical leaks, explosions, and water pollution.
Our laws have not always protected the rights of injured people like they dotoday — it has taken over two centuries of legal progress for this to happen. Consider the untold number of injury victims from recent prior decades who received no compensation for their injuries because laws favored business and industry and practically ignored workers’ and the general population’s safety.
Fortunately for you, our present laws reflect how society feels about victims receiving compensation for their injuries: that the parties responsible for those injuries-and the insurance companies insuring those risks-should be liable to pay fair compensation for all injuries and losses.
You should not feel that you are overstepping the protection the law affords you by pursuing fair compensation for your injuries. Nor should you be concerned about what a few other people may think-both the law and social opinions agree that you deserve to be fairly compensated for your injuries.
If your injuries had occurred even fifty years ago, you would not have the opportunity to obtain full compensation for your injuries. Sadly, many injury victims of prior decades received no compensation for their injuries. The injury victims of by-gone years basically had to just accept their bad lot in life; and even when wrongdoing was acknowledged, they still weren’t compensated.
Hawks Nest Tunnel Disaster: Evidence of a Long History of Corporate Abuse in WV
In 1927, Union Carbide made plans to blast a three mile tunnel through Gauley Mountain, West Virginia. It hired the contracting firm of Rinehart & Dennis to blast through the three mile tunnel. During blasting operations, workers discovered silica, a mineral used in producing steel, and were directed to mine the mineral in addition to conducting the tunneling operations.
The unexpected money gained by the sale of the silica was not used to purchase any type of safety equipment for the exposed miners. In fact, the miners were not given any protection from breathing the silica dust during blasting operations.Ironically, the management officials were provided such protections and wore them right in front of the unprotected miners.
Consequentially, these unfortunate workers developedsilicosis, a severe, even deadly lung disease brought onby their exposure to silica dust. Young, healthy miners collapsed like old men with emphysema.
The company covered up the tragedy by having these miners evaluated by their company doctors, who diagnosed other causes of illness, like pneumonia, instead of the correct diagnosis of silicosis.
The company eventually admitted to 109 deaths, but a Congressional hearing placed the death toll at 476. Other investigations found over 1,000 deaths. Becausemany of the workers left the area after they were exposed, it is impossible to determine the exact number of silicosis deaths involved.
This is one of America’s worst, yet least known, industrial disasters.
Just as the company used their own medical evaluators to cover up the silicosis developed by the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel excavators, company-paid doctors today are diagnosing miners with Black Lung as having other respiratory ailments such as emphysema in order to deny compensatory benefits.
Coal Mining Disasters in West Virginia
The truth is, coal companies historically have been careless about the safety of the miner and their well-being. The old “company store” still stirs the mind to the time when miners never got out of debt, lived in filth, and died an early death.
Because accurate records do not exist for the earlier stages of coal mining in this state, there is no way of knowing precisely how many thousands of coal miners have been seriously injured or killed because of unsafe working conditions in the mines.
Take the 1968 Farmington Mine Disaster as an example. Inadequate ventilation, inadequate control of explosive methane gas and coal dust, and inadequate testing for methane-all these were contributing factors to the ferocious blast and fire that killed seventy-eight miners.
Also consider the 1972 Buffalo Creek Disaster caused by the rupture of sediment ponds built by the coal companies over a period of several decades. One hundred and twenty-five men, women, and children perished when the massive torrent of muck swept down the valley of Buffalo Creek.
In time, state and federal laws were enacted to require better protection for coal miners, but enforcement was inadequate and sophisticated coal companies learned how to skirt around compliance. Consequently, more coal mine disasters resulted.
Just in the last decade alone, three more fatal mine disasters occurred claiming the lives of dozens more miners: the 2006 Sago Mine Disaster; the 2006 Aracoma Alma Mine Disaster; and the 2010 Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster. But even with more exacting laws requiring miner safety, mining deaths still continue because coal companies are still more motivated to make bigger profits than to provide better safety for coal miners.
If I were an outsider, I would be hesitant to talk about West Virginians’ feelings concerning the effects of coal mining in this state. But I am not an outsider, nor am I ignorant of coal mining operations. I was born and raised in the southern coal fields of West Virginia and have seen some of the needless damage that coal companies have caused to our people and land.
I have also, when a defense lawyer, represented many coal companies and have inspected their underground and surface mining operations.
Elk River Chemical Spill
Even before last week’s chemical spill fouled tap water in nine counties in West Virginia, it was not unusual to find distasteful, undrinkable water running from kitchen faucets in homes in homes in West Virginia around the Charleston chemical plants and southern coal field communities. Residents have complained for many years about brown or black water running from faucets, children with chronic skin rashes, and bathtub enamel eaten away, leaving locals to wonder what the same water was doing to their teeth and health in general.
Indeed, people who live in the Kanawha River Valley, which much of the world learned recently is also known as Chemical Valley, have endured a long history of pollution of many kinds. For nearly a century, Chemical Valley was home to the largest concentration of chemical plants in the United States. The Elk River chemical spill was the third major incident within five years.
The coal-cleansing chemical that spilled from Freedom Industry’s storage tank into the Elk River is only the latest insult in what for some has been a lifetime of industrial accidents that have poisoned groundwater, spewed toxic gas emissions, and caused fires, explosions which have killed chemical plant employees and caused the evacuation of towns, such as the Rivesville incident four years ago when a chemical spill involving hydrogen sulfide at the American Fiber Resources plant across the Monongahela River in Rivesville prompted authorities to evacuate area residents.
Thankfully, our legal protections have evolved to the point that people who can prove injury from these environmental disasters have recourse to gain compensation for damages and funds to pay for ongoing medical evaluation and treatment.
A good, recentexample of workersand community demanding and achieving their rights to medical treatment and compensationconcerns a court order concerning theMonsanto company, the producer of the chemical “Agent Orange”which agreed to pay $93 million for medical monitoring of some 5,000 Nitro factory workers who alleged in a class action suit that their town had been contaminated with dioxin, a toxic byproduct of Agent Orange production that is linked to cancer. The chemical giant also paid $9 million to clean dioxin-contaminated dust from 4,500 homes.
The Role of Trial Lawyers in Protecting Your Rights
John Adams, one of our founding fathers, is quoted as saying, “Representative government and trial by juryare theheart and lungs of liberty. Without [it] we have no other fortification against being ridden like horses, fleeced like sheep, worked like cattle, and fed and clothed like swine and hounds.”We still need to be on guard against being “ridden like horses” and “worked like cattle” because the modern-day companies have the same tendencies as their predecessors-to take advantage of their work force.
Like their predecessors, our modern-day companies don’t want to fairly compensate the people they injure or the families of the people they kill. Just like in earlier times of corporate abuse, little to no compensation will be offered to injury victims who must nurse their own injuries with inadequate financial support.
Lawmakers normally respond to public sentiment; this is how our representative system of government works. When enough interested citizens and injury victims voice support for better laws, it is up to the lawmakers to respond. In recent decades there has been steady public support for better laws for injury victims. But, corporations and insurance companies don’t want more restrictive safety requirements — to them, that means more liability exposure.
In response, lawmakers have had to choose between helping the corporations make more money and helping injury victims get recoveries from wrongdoers. Lawmakers thus far have not completely caved in to the desires of the corporations and insurance companies, because a majority of people have voiced their outrage over corporate greed and their role in causing an increase in incidents involving serious injuries and deaths. But it takes a constant flow of information to lawmakers about injury victims’ plights, and that’s where trial lawyers and our associations are effective in protecting your rights.
Our law firm is a member oforganizations and associations which work on a state and national level to protect the rights of injury victims. The purpose of our firm is to ensure you receive the compensation you deserve for the injuries and losses you have received. Call us today to learn how we can help you.
Questions? Give us a call: 304-594-1800 or after hours, 304-216-6695.
Jeffery Robinette was admitted to practice law in 1991 and is licensed in all levels of state and federal trial courts in West Virginia. Mr. Robinette is also licensed in all state and federal appeals courts in West Virginia and the United States Supreme Court. As a National Board Certified Trial Attorney who has handled hundreds of motor vehicle, injury, and construction defect claims and a leading author on insurance claims settlement issues and difficulties in West Virginia, Jeff Robinette is uniquely qualified to represent your best interest.