8:45am

Tue January 10, 2012
The Two-Way

The Cost Of A Life: Mine Disaster Settlement Talks Enter Fifth Day

The emotionally charged task of putting price tags on the lives of coal miners killed in the nation's deadliest mine disaster in 40 years continues for a fifth day in West Virginia.

Sources familiar with the mediation talks say the families of 13 Upper Big Branch mine explosion victims are still considering settlement of wrongful death claims with mine owner Alpha Natural Resources.

Six families settled yesterday in mediated negotiations that began Friday at a resort in Glade Springs, W. Va.

Attorney Mark Moreland represents two of the families who filed wrongful death lawsuits and accepted settlements Monday.

"While no amount of money will ever replace the loss, the conclusion of the civil litigation will help our clients move on with their lives," Moreland tells NPR.

Settlement terms will not be made public, Moreland adds, due to standard non-disclosure clauses in the agreements.

Alpha spokesman Ted Pile also declined to comment "because these are private discussions that are ongoing," he says.

Last year, though, former Upper Big Branch owner Massey Energy disclosed settlement offers of at least $3 million for each of the families of the 29 workers killed in the massive underground explosion on April 5, 2010. Eleven families accepted before this month's mediation began, but a West Virginia Circuit Court approved only 10 of the cases. The eleventh is part of the mediation talks.

Under West Virginia law, wrongful death settlements must be reviewed and approved in court.

At least 11 miners physically injured or emotionally devastated by the explosion have also asserted claims, sources say. Their cases are also being negotiated in the mediation now underway for an unscheduled fifth day.

The mediator conducting the settlement talks is Michael Rozen, whose New York firm helped determine compensation from the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund. Rozen's firm also mediated settlement talks stemming from the BP oil rig explosion and spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

Last month, Alpha avoided corporate criminal prosecution for the Upper Big Branch explosion in an agreement with the Justice Department. The deal guarantees families of the miners killed a minimum of $1.5 million in compensation.

U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin has said a criminal investigation continues and charges are still possible against managers and executives of Massey Energy. Federal and independent investigators blamed the explosion on a corporate culture that put productivity over safety.

"To complete the circle of justice here," says victims' attorney Mark Moreland, "everyone must now wait for the actions of the U.S. Attorney. We believe somebody needs to go to prison."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.