A federal judge, Irene Berger, sentenced former Massey Energy CEO, Don Blankenship, to one year in prison and a fine of $250,000 for his role in one of the deadliest mine explosions our nation has ever witnessed. The judge said Blankenship was part of a “dangerous conspiracy,” and it is the maximum penalty she could have doled out for a misdemeanor conspiracy to violate mine safety standards charge. The judge had already ruled that Mr. Blankenship would not have to pay $28 million in restitution to Alpha Natural Resources for cleanup costs.
The explosion at Upper Big Branch Mine (owned by Massey Energy) occurred six years ago on April 5, 2011. It killed 29 men, and Massey Coal was found responsible for the explosion by a state-funded independent investigation. The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) in its final report concluded that immense safety violations contributed to the disaster, and handed out 369 citations, assessing $10.8 million in penalties. The disaster was the worst we have seen in four decades.
Mr. Blankenship was convicted last December by a federal jury on one misdemeanor count of conspiring to violate federal mine safety laws, while being acquitted of more serious counts of lying to investors and regulators. Blankenship had maintained no culpability throughout the trial and investigation process, while his attorneys contended he should receive probation and a fine, at most. While it was the maximum sentence available, victims of those who were killed contend that the punishment still does not fit the crime.
Mr. Blankenship is the first chief executive of a major U.S. corporation to be convicted of workplace safety related charges following an industrial accident.
Criminal Penalties for Workplace Safety Violations
The example above is just one illustration of how one disaster can touch upon the criminal law, wrongful death, and employment law fields. Under both federal and state law, employers are required to provide a safe working environment for employees. There are strict penalties for violations.
California specifically allows for criminal prosecutions arising out of workplace deaths. Specifically, Section 6425 of the California Labor Code authorizes penalties for supervisors who have responsibility for the “direction, management, control or custody of others” to be fined up to $100,000 and imprisoned for a year when there is willful violation of any occupational safety or health which results in the death of any employee. See CA Labor Code § 6425. The California Occupational Safety and Health Administration maintains a list of significant violations that have been cited on their website. Additionally, the California Occupational Safety and Health Act is stronger than the federal OSHA law and also provides for steep penalties. Continue reading