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Widows sue coal companies, boss


A Kentucky mine supervisor and a coal company put production over safety prior to an underground explosion last year that killed five miners, relatives and the sole survivor alleged in a lawsuit Monday.

The lawsuit, filed in Harlan County, alleges numerous safety violations against Kentucky Darby L.L.C., coal boss Ralph Napier, and Jericol Mining, which provided management, mine planning, engineering, safety training, and other services to Darby Mine No. 1.

It seeks unspecified damages for expenses incurred by four of the five widows upon the loss of their husbands, and damages for the physical pain, mental suffering and emotional distress suffered by the miners, including survivor Paul Ledford.

The complaint also seeks damages against the manufacturer of the emergency air packs used by the victims.

The widows and Ledford live mainly on worker’s compensation benefits, said their attorney Tony Oppegard.

“The purpose of filing the lawsuit is solely to take care of the miners families,” Oppegard said. “They can’t survive on worker’s comp benefits.”

The suit was filed a year and a day after the May 20, 2006 blast, ignited by two of the miners – Jimmy Lee and shift foreman

Amon “Cotton” Brock – using an open torch near a methane leak.

Brock’s widow, Imogene, is the only widow not named as a plaintiff.

The complaint alleges, in part, that Napier hired Brock as a foreman “although he knew – and had been warned – that Brock was an unsafe foreman who regularly and flagrantly violated mine safety laws and placed coal production before the safety of the miners who worked under his supervision.”

Napier’s attorney, Kent Hendrickson of Harlan, said he had received a copy of the complaint, but hadn’t reviewed it yet.

Brock, 51, and Lee, 33, died at the scene of the blast. The other three victims – Roy Middleton, 35, Paris Thomas Jr., 53, and Bill Petra, 49 – died from carbon monoxide poisoning and smoke inhalation while trying to escape.

Ledford survived the blast, though he suffered permanent damage to his lungs from smoke inhalation.

Brock also was one of two foremen who supervised the construction of the underground seals that were supposed to isolate methane, a naturally occurring gas in coal mines, according to the complaint.

The protective seal, which should have blocked out naturally occurring methane, was poorly constructed and failed to meet federal guidelines, according to investigators.

The torch ignited the leaking methane as Lee and Brock were cutting away metal straps that intersected the top of the seal and were used as underground roof supports.

“Brock ordered that a roof strap … be removed by cutting it with a torch, in direct violation of health and safety laws and regulations,” the complaint says.

Federal and state investigators have not determined who told Brock that the repair was necessary.

The defendants include the unknown manufacturer and distributors of the roof straps; CSE Corporation, which manufactured the emergency air packs Middleton, Thomas, Petra and Ledford used as they tried to escape; and the unknown distributor of the air packs.

The lawsuit claims that the air packs, CSE SR-100 self-contained self-rescuers, were “defectively designed” and “unreasonably dangerous,” though investigators with the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration concluded that the devices worked properly in the Darby disaster.

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