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Widow can sue over mine death, high court says




FRANKFORT

The widow of an eastern Kentucky coal miner who bled to death after his legs were cut off in a gruesome underground accident can proceed with a lawsuit against the company that employed him, the Kentucky Supreme Court has ruled.

In the unanimous ruling, justices gave Stella Morris of Cumberland the go-ahead to seek financial damages from H & D Mining Inc., its owners and a local ambulance service.

H&D Mining had sought to have the lawsuit dismissed. That motion had been denied by a trial judge, triggering appeals to the Kentucky Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court. Both courts now have up held the trial judge’s ruling.

Lexington attorney Tony Oppegard who represents Morris, a single mother working as a clerk in a tobacco shop, said the coal company’s motion and appeals have caused an unnecessary delay in the case.

“It’s not surprising in that most coal companies typically fight tooth and nail,” Oppegard said. “The company in this case hasn’t come forward in any way to try to help her or her small son.”

David “Bud” Morris Jr., 29, bled to death in 2005 after being struck by an overloaded coal-hauling vehicle inside the company’s No. 3 mine, severing his legs just below the knees. His widow claimed in the lawsuit that the mine medic didn’t do anything to stop the bleeding. Instead, she said, two co-workers tied makeshift tourniquets, put him in a buggy and drove him to the surface. He then was loaded into the back of a pickup truck and driven to an ambulance.

Stella Morris alleges in the lawsuit that the owners knew drug abuse was rampant in the Harlan County coal mine. The driver of the coal-hauler tested positive for painkillers and marijuana after the accident, according to the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.

The widow claims in the lawsuit that a room where miners changed clothes was known as “the crack house” because miners used illegal drugs there.

Stella Morris also claims mine owners knew the driver of the coal-hauler was impaired by drugs at the time of the accident and that he had a serious drug problem. The lawsuit, filed in Harlan County Circuit Court in 2007, seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages for Stella Morris and her young son, Landen.

The company had asked the trial judge to dismiss the case shortly after it was filed. The judge instead allowed attorneys to continue gathering evidence and to take depositions. The company argued in the appeal that the judge erred in doing so.

The high court said granting the coal company’s request to dismiss the case would be premature.

“Trial courts must give cases an opportunity to breathe before they are declared dead,” justices said.


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