The Price of Justice In Coal Country

Mountain Top Removal in Wise County, VA
Mountain Top Removal in Wise County, VA

The Price of Justice – A True Story of Greed and Corruption

On May 23, 2014 a Virginia jury ruled against Massey Energy (acquired by Alpha Natural Resources) and awarded $4 million to bankrupt coal mine, Harman Development Corp. and $1 million in personal damages to its owner, Hugh Caperton. This verdict brings an end to the latest chapter in Caperton’s 16 year battle against Massey Energy and it’s former CEO Donald Blankenship. This struggle is the the subject of Laurence Leamer’s riveting non-fiction thriller, The Price of Justice – A True Story of Greed and Corruption.

Using courtroom transcripts and testimony he obtained through numerous interviews, Leamer tells the story of how two Pittsburgh attorneys, David Fawcett and Bruce Stanley, represented Hugh Caperton whose company, they charge, was deliberately bankrupted by Massey Energy in a plan conceived and executed by Massey CEO Don Blankenship. They claim, and three juries now agree, that Massey deliberately violated its agreements with Caperton and Harman, forcing the company into bankruptcy for the direct financial benefit of Massey Energy. The May 23 verdict is the latest guilty verdict delivered by a jury in this case, and like the others, will likely be appealed. Only this time the appeal will come from Caperton.

According to Caperton’s attorneys, the jury award announced last week is unreasonably low. Bruce Stanley said on Saturday:

We are not finished,” he said. “We will take a look at all our available options and do whatever is within our power to hold Massey accountable for the full extent of the injuries they caused.”

The award falls well short of the $50 million Caperton was originally awarded in 2002 by the West Virginia jury that first ruled on this case – an award that was appealed by Massey and never paid. It falls well short of Harman’s $50 million bankruptcy debt, which includes retirement and health claims filed by the United Mine Worker’s Union on behalf of coal miners who worked at the mine. And it falls well short of the $83 million Caperton was currently seeking – an amount that reflects Harman’s and Caperton’s substantial debt – a debt that continues to multiply as this case drags on. So, while yet another jury has found in Caperton’s favor, his struggles are far from over.

In The Price Of Justice Laurence Leamer describes and documents the devious business practices that Massey allegedly used against Caperton; he describes the premeditated way in which the strategy was conceived of and executed; he documents the chilling vulnerability of our justice system and how it is abused by politicians and wealthy contributors. And he shows us how expendable a human life can be to those who place profits before ethics.

Greg Schneider, writing for the Washington Post said of The Price Of Justice

You really couldn’t make this stuff up: Caperton wins when things look hopeless, has setbacks when things seem assured — and through it all, the level of villainy attributed to Blankenship is stupefying. “

The case was originally filed in West Virginia in 1998. After years of legal delays, the case went to trial and in 2002 the jury ruled in Caperton’s favor and awarded him $50 million. At the time of this ruling, Harman faced over $39 million in bankruptcy debt, including pension and health care claims.

Leamer describes and carefully documents all of the events that followed – events that threaten the very foundation of our judicial system. Events that John Grisham used as the basis for his best selling novel, The Verdict. These events include allegations of “buying” a judgeship through massive campaign contributions, a Justice’s refusal to recuse himself despite evidence that questioned his objectivity, three appeals to the State Supreme Court centered on judicial misconduct and one appeal to the US Supreme Court, which Caperton won. And in the end, despite all of these appeals, the only resolution was to allow the West Virginia State Supreme Court to overturn the original verdict based on a technicality that ultimately required the case be tried over again, this time in the State of Virginia. So after 12 years had passed from the date the original suit was filed, Caperton had to start all over.

This is a story about Coal, Power and Corruption and Leamer tells it extremely well. It is a story about how coal impacts every aspect of life in Appalachia – a century old debate that divides communities and splits families apart. It is a story of how money and power influence every aspect of our lives. It is the story of our times and could be the story of our future.

It is admirable that Stanley and Fawcett continue to fight for justice. One can only wonder what the next chapter will bring. As we consider and debate the role of money in politics; as we explore the impact of money on our judicial system and sense of justice; as we ponder the significance of awarding Personhood to businesses whose goals are nothing like what defines us as people; as we allow special interests to write the laws that regulate their own industries; as we consider all of these issues – it behooves us to follow the continuing saga of Caperton, Stanley, Fawcett, Massey and self professed ‘American Competitionist”, Don Blankenship (who, according to Leamer, refused all of the author’s requests for an interview). This story shows us that our system is broken, and leaves us wondering if justice will ever prevail.

Blankenship stepped down from Massey after an explosion killed 29 miners at his Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia. In reporting on this event and the larger than life figure that Blankenship likes to portray, Rolling Stone Magazine reported:

If any of this troubles Blankenship, he doesn’t let on. By his own accounting, the bottom line provides all the proof he needs of his virtue. “I don’t care what people think,” he once said during a talk to a gathering of Republican Party leaders in West Virginia. ‘At the end of the day, Don Blankenship is going to die with more money than he needs.'”

 

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