One of the nation's largest coal companies should pay more than $37 million in damages because it committed blatant safety violations that caused the death of a Letcher County miner, a lawsuit alleges.
An attorney for Susie Sturgill, widow of miner Roy D. Sturgill II, filed the lawsuit Friday in Letcher Circuit Court against St. Louis-based Arch Coal Inc., and its subsidiary, Cumberland River Coal Company.
Sturgill, 29, drove an 85-ton rock truck at Cumberland River's Blue Ridge surface mine at Ovenfork. He died Jan. 8, 2008 after the truck went over the edge of a cliff — called a highwall — and plunged about 200 feet, breaking in two and ejecting Sturgill.
At surface mines, drivers use huge trucks to haul away rock blasted loose to uncover coal.
The lawsuit said a berm that was supposed to keep trucks from going over the highwall was inadequate because it was much too low and was made of improper material.
Sturgill worked for a contractor who supplied workers to coal companies. He had asked to work at Cumberland River in hopes of getting hired by the company so he could get health insurance for his family.
Sturgill had only been a rock-truck driver for 12 days before the accident, and had only driven on the night shift four times, the lawsuit said.
A company supervisor, Gene Combs, had looked at the berm just minutes before the accident. Combs knew the height of the berm was important to keep drivers from backing over the highwall — especially inexperienced drivers — but did not stop other work to fix the problem, the lawsuit said.
"A few minutes later, you have a dead miner," Susie Sturgill's attorney, Tony Oppegard, said in an interview.
State and federal regulators cited Cumberland River Coal over the inadequate berm. The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration accused the company of high negligence and proposed a penalty of $60,000 for the alleged safety violation.
The company is contesting the penalty, according to MSHA's Web site.
A spokeswoman for Arch Coal did not return a call seeking comment Friday.
The company says on its Web site that it has operations in six states, including Kentucky, and contributes about 12 percent of the U.S. coal supply.
The Web site also says safety is a priority for Arch, and that the company's lost-time injury rate was four times better than the industry average in 2008.
In Sturgill's death, however, Arch and Cumberland River broke the law and the supervisor was grossly negligent, the lawsuit filed Friday for Susie Sturgill charges.
It seeks $15 million to compensate Sturgill and her children, Kylar, 10, and and Brooke, 8, for the loss of Roy Sturgill's earnings and the children's loss of their father; an unspecified amount for Susie Sturgill's loss of companionship; and $2 million for the pain Roy Sturgill suffered in the 90 minutes he lived after the accident.
It also seeks $20 million in punitive damages against Arch and Cumberland River.
Oppegard said Sturgill's death has been very traumatic for his widow and children. Sturgill coached his son's sports teams and the family was close, Oppegard said.
"Literally, they visit the graveyard every day," he said. "The family wants justice, and the American court system is the only way they can go about getting justice."