A Wyoming County Circuit Court jury recently awarded a surface coal miner $160,000 in damages after they determined he was wrongfully discharged from his job as a welder at a Coal Mountain mine.
Rick M. Varney, of Mercer County, was awarded $148,140 in compensatory damages and $11,860 in general damages, according to court records.
The jury also found the coal companies should pay Varney’s attorney’s fees. Per state law, the final decision concerning the attorney fees will be made by the judge.
The judge can also decide to assess additional damages, on top of the jury’s findings, for future lost wages.
Sam Petsonk, a Beckley attorney, filed suit on behalf of Varney against Justice Highwall Mining, Dynamic Energy, Bluestone Industries, and EIN Energy. His co-counsel was Bren J. Pomponio.
Justice Highwall Mining, Dynamic Energy and Bluestone Industries were joint employers of Varney as they shared directors, offices, employees, as well as control of decisions to hire, discipline and fire, according to court documents.
EIN Energy provided employee benefits and paid the wages earned by the employees. The company also “assisted and advised the other joint-employer Defendants regarding a wide array of employment practices affecting the Defendants’ joint employees, including hiring, termination, supervision, and certain aspects of management, as well as providing or procuring employment practices liability management and/or insurance services regarding those employees,” according to court records.
EIN Energy filed a motion to dismiss the suit, which was denied, and the company then settled out of court.
In the suit, Varney, who worked as a welder, said he was ordered to work in unsafe conditions at the Coal Mountain mine after he complained of unsafe equipment in October 2016 and had proposed steps to eliminate the hazards.
In one example, Varney said he and two co-workers were on a top bench, which is comprised of fill material, when a blast was detonated without any prior warning to nearby workers per state code. Varney said he was forced to jump seven or eight feet to get under an end-loader in order to protect himself from the flying debris.
In another example in the suit, Varney said an excavator was used for jobs for which it was not designed and, as a result, the bucket was damaged on a daily basis. Varney insisted on making the necessary repairs to the bucket, which supervisors complained was taking “a substantial amount of time.”
Varney’s employment was terminated in January 2017. This case involved a “constructive discharge,” in which the worker is told he will be fired if he does not resign.
The companies have 30 days to file an appeal.