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Judge Tosses Lawsuit |on Miner Death Claims

(CN) - The families of three miners killed in the April 2010 Upper Big Branch mine explosion in West Virginia cannot proceed with their effort to collect $1.5 million in damages from the new owner of the facility.

The families have filed three separate lawsuits against Alpha Natural Resources Inc. in Federal Court, and twice before seen those cases tossed: once for lack of jurisdiction, and once on the merits of their case.

After the latter dismissal, the plaintiffs appealed and the 4th Circuit reversed and remanded the case back to the lower court, directing it not to weigh the merits of the case, but to again dismiss the claims for lack of jurisdiction.

The families then filed a third lawsuit in pursuit of additional damages for their respective losses.

"In each complaint, the Plaintiffs refined their claims, but the essential allegation has remained the same: that the [Non-Prosecution Agreement] established a right of restitution of $1.5 million for the family of each deceased miner, and the civil settlements received prior to the Government and Alpha entering into the NPA do not satisfy that obligation," wrote U.S. District Judge Irene Berger, in an opinion issued earlier this week.

Alpha Natural Resources acquired Massey Energy Co., the owner of the mine at the time of the explosion, in June 2011. Six months later, Alpha and the government signed their non-prosecution pact, based on the company's promise to pay at least $1.5 million to each of the families of the fallen miners and two other individuals affected by the blast.

The families pressing their case against Alpha claim the company has failed to fulfill its promises to them and to six other families.

They further alleged that while the administrators of the estates of 11 fallen miners settled wrongful death claims with Massey before Alpha came on the scene, and certainly before Alpha entered into its agreement with the government. They maintained these settlements were between Massey and the beneficiaries, and in no way satisfy Alpha's obligations.

Alpha moved to dismiss, first arguing the plaintiffs lacked standing to bring a lawsuit under the NPA because they'd already settled their claims and therefore weren't parties to the agreement.

Judge Berger ultimately agreed with Alpha on the standing issues, but for an entirely different reason.

" ... though the NPA was public and provided benefits to the victim's families (among others0, enforcement of the NPA remained squarely within the United States' prosecutorial discretion," she wrote.

As a result, she said, "The Court finds dismissal appropriate due to the Plaintiff's lack of standing to enforce the NPA."

Even assuming for the sake of argument that standing existed, Berger said dismissal would still be warranted for failure to state a claim "based on both the plaintiff language of the NPA and the settlement agreements signed by each Plaintiff."

Alpha also argued the lawsuit should be dismissed based on the "unambiguous" terms of the non-prosecution agreement.

Here again, Judge Berger agreed.

"The language of the NPA is clear and unambiguous," she wrote. "The terms of the NPA simply do not provide for additional recovery for the families or estates of miners listed in Appendix C, including these Plaintiffs."

Appendix C of the non-prosecution agreement lists the names of the miners whose families had already reached settlements of their claims.

"The meaning is clear and unmistakable," Berger continued. "$16.5 million of the agreed-upon $46.5 million in payments to victims' families had already been accounted for in settlements pre-dating the NPA. Massey and/or Alpha had previously paid some of that money, and had committed to paying some of it in the future."

She added: "the Plaintiffs' focus in this suit is on an asserted distinction between estate beneficiaries and wrongful death beneficiaries. Even if it were true that the settlements were exclusively wrongful death settlements, the NPA states that those settlements satisfy its restitution requirements.

"The NPA is a contract, and the Court must apply its terms," Berger wrote. "Nowhere does the NPA suggest that the restitution is to be paid to estate beneficiaries, as opposed to those family members who reached civil settlements."

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