The 4th U.S. Court of Appeals will be asked to reinstate a lawsuit stemming from a 1968 explosion at the Farmington No. 9 coal mine West Virginia that left 78 miners dead.
Families of some of the victims of that explosion filed a wrongful death lawsuit in 2014 after they say evidence emerged showing the mines owner, Consolidated Coal, concealed the cause of the explosion. That case was rejected by a judge who ruled it was filed too late, but families argue new evidence should allow the case to move forward.
ABC News reported that the families say they tried for years to find out what caused the explosion and whether Consolidation Coal was responsible. They accuse the company of fraudulently concealing key information that would have allowed them to file a wrongful death lawsuit years earlier.
Last year, a federal judge threw out their 2014 lawsuit, saying the “suit, brought forty-six years after the explosion, is late by more than forty-four years.”
According to the lawsuit, it was not until 2008 when the families learned about a 1970 memo by an investigator who wrote that an alarm on a ventilation fan used to flush explosive methane gas from the mine was disabled the night of the explosion. The alarm was supposed to shut off power to the mine if the fan stopped, which would alert the miners to evacuate.
The suit says it wasn’t until 2014 when the families learned that the mine’s chief electrician had disabled the fan. It alleges that the company had concealed the electrician’s identity.
“Our position is that but for the fraudulent concealment of the facts, these folks could have filed and had a successful wrongful-death case,” said Timothy Bailey, a West Virginia lawyer who represents the families.
Bailey argues that the two-year limitation period on wrongful-death cases should be extended based on the families’ claims.
In court documents, lawyers for the mining company say problems with the mine's ventilation fans became public knowledge a month after the explosion when multiple witnesses testified during public hearings that despite the alarm system, power to some areas of the mine sometimes did not automatically shut down as it was designed to do.
In 2013, the mining company sold five of its mines and its transportation division to Murray Energy Corp., which assumed certain liabilities from the former Consolidation operations, including the No. 9 mine.
A spokesman for Murray Energy declined to comment on the specific claims made in the lawsuit but released a statement
“Murray Energy had absolutely nothing to do with the Farmington Mine disaster,” the statement said.
“Indeed, Murray Energy did not even exist in 1968, when the accident occurred. There is no higher priority at Murray Energy than the health and safety of our coal miners.”
As a result of the disaster, Congress passed the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969, which increased federal mine inspections and toughened safety standards.