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Maximum Sentence for Coal CEO Shows Shortcomings of Justice System in Protecting Workers

This April, the CEO of a coal company faced criminal sentencing for his role in the death of 29 miners who worked for his company. Safety News Alert reported the CEO was the "most prominent American coal executive ever convicted of a charge related to the deaths of miners." He reportedly micromanaged virtually everything which was going on at the mines, requiring progress reports around once every half hour. He also reportedly urged shortcuts be taken, despite safety violations, in order to maximize profits. handcuffs-1469317

The consequences of his actions were deadly. In March of 2010, an explosion occurred and fire ripped through the Upper Big Branch mine operated by the coal company, Massey. The fire caused 29 worker deaths. The deadly explosion and fire happened because coal dust and flammable gases like methane had been allowed to accumulate. Federal prosecutors said the CEO's orders to cut corners were responsible for the accumulation of the dust and gases which led to the fatal workplace accident.

CEO Sentenced in Death of Mine Workers

Prosecutors presented evidence to the jury of the CEO's active role in managing the mines as well as proof of the link between his orders and the explosion. The CEO was convicted last December in connection with the deaths of the minors. He ended up being convicted of just one misdemeanor count of conspiring to violate mine safety. The maximum penalty for this offense was one year in prison, which he was sentenced to. He was also sentenced to pay a $250,000 fine and to a year of supervised release.

Prosecutors had initially charged him with other offenses including securities fraud and making false statements. Had he been convicted of these other offenses, he could have faced as long as 30 years imprisonment. However, because he was only convicted of a misdemeanor for the safety violations which led to 29 deaths, he could be sentenced to no more than a year imprisonment under the law.

The coal company had accumulated thousands of safety violations at the mines it was operating over the years.  Two other managers at Massey also pled guilty to criminal charges. Yet, despite the track record of problems and despite evidence the CEO's instructions directly contributed to the deaths of 29 people, the maximum penalty he could face was just a year incarceration. The fact the fines and penalties would have been so much greater for securities law violations than for safety violations which led to almost 30 deaths demonstrates clearly why there is so little incentive for companies to actually follow safety rules.

When sentenced, the CEO said he felt sorrow for the families but that he had not committed a crime. His lawyers intend to appeal and try to get the minimal sentence he faces reduced, as he was hoping to just get a fine and probation.  Obviously, such a penalty would provide even less of a deterrent effect than the minimal sentence he received for his role in the deaths.

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