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Laurence Leamer Headshot

Bruce Stanley's Got a Chip on His Shoulder

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Bruce Stanley's got an enormous chip on his shoulder that nothing can knock off. He's enraged that the legal and political system is his native state of West Virginia is so corrupt that the bad and the compromised often float to the top of the system while the true and the caring are just as often endlessly stymied. For the past 15 years, Stanley and his fellow Pittsburgh co-counsel Dave Fawcett have been fighting a two-person war against Don Blankenship, the chairman of Massey Energy, until its demise as the largest coal company in Appalachia.

Stanley has fought in new, different ways using the law as it has not been used before. In 2006 Stanley filed a lawsuit on behalf of Delorice Bragg and Freda Hatfield, widows whose husband had died in a fire in the Massey-owned Aracoma mine in January of that year. It was a fire that happened because of Massey's egregious violations of state and federal mine safety regulations. Mandatory safety drills never took place though they were written up as if they had. The fire hoses in the mine near the fire did not work properly. The ventilation system had been compromised, fanning the fire's flames and filling the miners' primary escape way with roiling black smoke. While there were no criminal indictments of Massey executives, Aracoma paid massive fines and Stanley won a big settlement for the widows.

Stanley didn't stop there. He believed that the federal safety inspectors shared in the blame. He was convinced that they had either been bribed, had willfully looked the other way, or acted with criminal irresponsibility. But you can't just sue the federal government in a case like this. First, he filed an administrative claim with the U.S. Department of Labor. Anybody who knew anything about the law said that this was just Stanley off on his personal vendetta and he would get nowhere.

Showing its disdain for his apparently frivolous claim, the Department of Labor did not even bother to rule. After waiting two years with no answer, Stanley filed a civil suit against the U.S. government in Charleston, WV. Federal Judge John T. Copenhaver Jr ruled the way anyone in the West Virginia capital could have told Stanley he would rule. He agreed with the feds and dismissed the claim.

Stanley is not a ranting legal lunatic but a sophisticated, well-versed attorney. He appealed to the United States 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that West Virginia law allows precisely the claim that he was seeking to make. All he asked -- if the court wasn't sure of the right and wrong of the issue -- is that they send it back to the Supreme Court of West Virginia for those five justices to decide. The federal judges agreed with him and last October sent the case to the West Virginia Supreme Court.

This is where he should have expected it to end. In my forthcoming book, The Price of Justice, to be published in May, I detail the corruption of the Supreme Court of West Virginia and its many disservices to the people of West Virginia. Stanley had taken on the court before, and there was no way the five justices were going to vote in his favor. Or so I thought.

Earlier this week the court voted 5-0 that "a safety inspector owes a duty of care to the employees whose safety the inspection is intended to secure." That may have been self-evident but it was an extraordinary moment that could prove one of the most important outcomes of the years of struggle against Massey.

Some people think the justices know what is coming out in The Price of Justice, and they are now trying to position themselves as true servants of the people and of justice. I don't know that that's the case. I do know that it's not only Bruce Stanley who has a victory here, but all the miners of West Virginia and anyone who cares for justice for everyone and who believes that no man is above the law.

The case goes back now to 87-year-old Judge Copenhaver who will have yet another chance to prove that he understands the nature of justice by finally allowing the Aracoma widows to call the US government to account.