Don Blankenship, the chairman of Massey Energy, drove Hugh Caperton's Harman Mine into bankruptcy in 1998. Pittsburgh lawyers Dave Fawcett and Bruce Stanley took on Caperton's case on contingency and fought it with relentless tenacity. Over 14 years Caperton has become one of the greatest legal epics of modern times, and is the central case in my forthcoming book, The Price of Justice: A True Story of Greed and Corruption, to be published next month.
In the latest development, the Virginia Supreme Court has ruled this week that the case should go back to the Virginia circuit court where in all likelihood it will go to trial by the end of the year. The unanimous Virginia Supreme Court opinion tells the story of what happened to Caperton all these years in a straightforward manner that is a devastating rebuke to many of the players in this drama: from Blankenship to the justices of the West Virginia Supreme Court. It validates and amplifies almost everything I have written in The Price of Justice.
When Massey, the largest coal company in Appalachia, purchased the Wellmore/United Company in 1997, Blankenship didn't like the price his new subsidiary was paying in a long-term contract to purchase Harman's coal. So Blankenship invented an excuse to stop buying the coal, in so doing destroying the small coal company. It was such an egregious abuse of power that in 2002 a jury in West Virginia awarded Caperton and his company $50 million.
While the case worked its way up to the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia, Blankenship spent $3 million electing conservative Republican Brent Benjamin to the court. It was probably the most money ever spent by one individual in a judicial election. Benjamin refused to recuse himself and voted Massey's way in a majority opinion turning back the massive judgment. Before the court heard the case, another of the justices, Elliot Maynard, was seen off in southern France on vacation traipsing around with Blankenship. When this was discovered, Maynard initially refused to recuse himself but eventually decided he should not vote.
Benjamin's arrogant insistence on voting on Caperton was so outrageous that the matter was eventually heard by the United States Supreme Court in 2009. In an historic opinion, the court ruled that those whose cases are being heard have no right to contribute massive amounts of money to the judges deciding their case. They sent Caperton back to the Charleston court where in 2010 for the third time the justices turned Caperton back arguing that the Harman contract made it clear that the case had to be heard in Virginia. It was obvious that the justices had agreed that they would do whatever was necessary to destroy this case for good.
In 2011, Fawcett and Stanley filed the suit in Virginia where the circuit judge threw it out. The Harman mine had previously gone to trial on a narrow contract matter in Virginia and the judge ruled that they could not come back for another slice of the pie.
The Virginia Supreme Court eloquently rebuked the circuit judge for his misreading of the law, and has given Caperton another day in court. Few plaintiffs would have fought all these years as Caperton has fought. His health has suffered, his career devastated, his family life compromised. And few law firms would have gone as far as Reed Smith has gone, spending over $6 million with not a dime of compensation. And few lawyers would have fought as Fawcett and Stanley have fought, sacrificing lucrative clients and sometimes their very health. But they are as determined as 14 years ago.
"When the truth wants out of the pot, no amount of lid play will keep it from boiling over," Stanley says. "Hugh Caperton and his lawyers will see this case to the end."