The Scotia Widows
Inside Their Lawsuit Against Big Daddy Coal
Reviewed by Richard von Busack
A very simply written account of Gerald M. Stern's complex case against the Blue Diamond Coal Company; it ran four years from the initial 1976 disaster to the final settlement. The Scotia, Ky., tragedy was one of two disasters in the same mine in the same week; in the first, negligent ventilation suffocated 15 trapped men. What happened at Scotia led directly to the Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration Act of 1977. Still, the odds against the plaintiffs were high. Stern states his case: "Blue Diamond's reckless pursuit of more coal and money, in the face of an unsafe ventilation condition, had killed their husbands, destroyed their own lives and dreams, and left children who would never see their fathers again." Kentucky's workmen's compensation laws favored the coal companies, and then there was a shell game about which side of the Kentucky/Tennessee line the mine's ownership was on. The opposition lawyer was Bert Combs, a popular Kentuckian who had previously been the first Appalachian governor of that state. The judge, H. David Hermansdorfer, turned out to be secretly receiving royalties for coal mining on his own private land. In self-effacing, cautious prose, Stern, co-founder of Rogovin, Stern and Huge, sums up the details of a David and Goliath struggle. He also mentions the shunning that went on in the small towns around the mine, where the miners' widows were stigmatized as troublemakers and fortune hunters. One plaintiff had her house vandalized; another committed suicide. Seeing this story as a triumph requires some optimism. The emasculated OSHA of the Bush years, according to Rep. George Miller, ensures that one worker dies a day on the job. Ultimately, Blue Diamond criminal liability was a fine of $60,000 tax-deductible dollars. Still, Stern proves that today's cut corner can lead to tomorrow's hefty lawsuit: "When it comes to safety, the mantra should be 'Pay me now or pay me more later.'" (By Gerald M. Stern; Random House; 145 pages; $20 hardback)
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