Miners, families testify against bill to ax injury benefits
CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Jonathan Barber was 29 years old with an infant son when injuries he received on the job in a West Virginia coal mine left him paralyzed and in a wheelchair.
Barber was struck between his shoulder blades by an unstable brow at a mine in April 2017. He lay buried under coal for two hours.
Barber said he later found out that employees working an earlier shift had noted that the equipment looked unsafe, and were told by management to delay repairs.
He sued the company, and used the money he won to buy a wheelchair-accessible home for his family.
Barber said the money has also helped to support them through years of the financial strain caused by his injuries. It hasn’t been easy. Barber’s wife had to quit her job to care for him and his son, and it’s something he struggles with every day, he said.
“The stress I have to deal with for the rest of my life being stuck in this chair, it’s a real rough situation,” he said. “It’s hard to talk about.”
Officials from Arch Coal did not immediately respond to an email and voicemail requesting comment Thursday afternoon.
State lawmakers are considering a bill that would eliminate a West Virginia law that allows workers like Barber and their families to receive financial relief in addition to workers’ compensation in cases where an employer’s negligence led to injury or death.
Most workers’ compensation laws protect employers from being sued by their employees, as long as they provide them with benefits.
Under West Virginia law, if an employer acts with “deliberate intent” to cause an injury to an employee, the employer loses that immunity.
“This is coverage for instances where the worst of the worst actions caused the worst of the worst injuries,” said J.R. Carter, a Charleston-based attorney who has represented workers in deliberate intent cases.
Supporters of the bill say eliminating the statute will help companies save money during a time when they’ve been under stress amid trade wars and the COVID-19 pandemic.
The vast majority of those who spoke in support of the legislation during a Thursday hearing at the state Capitol were from the logging and forestry industry. All those who spoke about having a personal experience with a workplace injury were coal miners or family members of miners, except for one man who said he lost an arm while working in a West Virginia sawmill.
The president of Petersburg-based Allegheny Wood Products, John Crites, said the state’s deliberate intent law makes it difficult for his company to compete with states like Virginia and Pennsylvania.
“With deliberative intent, I’m continuously in a lawsuit all the time,” he said. “And I’ll tell you, I’ll swear on a stack of Bibles here before all of you today, I’ve never deliberately tried to hurt anyone.”
He called the statute a “burden” for companies — especially those who work hard to make sure their employees stay safe.
“I’m not here today to ask for any special favors, all I want is equal footing with the states surrounding us,” he said.
But families who have lost loved ones or seen them injured said it will leave workers vulnerable.
Caitlin O’Dell’s husband Steven died working in a coal mine 10 years ago, the year after they married and three weeks before the birth of their son.
Steven, an electrician and Iraq War veteran, was hit by a scoop, a vehicle used to haul coal in underground mines. Investigators found that the scoop had been modified in a way that significantly reduced the visibility of the driver, O’Dell said. O’Dell testified that the company knew working conditions were unsafe because of a similar incident two years prior, and didn’t make changes.
After losing her husband, O’Dell said she later lost her home in foreclosure. She later filed suit under the deliberative exposure law.
“We were able to recover an amount of compensation that ensures my son and I will always have a roof over our heads,” O’Dell said, fighting back tears.
With the money, O’Dell said she’s been able to create a savings account to help pay for her son’s college education one day.
“No dollar amount can bring back his father, but it certainly provides security and stability,” she said.
House Bill 4394 is currently under review by the House Judiciary Committee.