20 August 2009

Judge Yanked from Massey Case

The state Supreme Court has disqualified a Mingo County circuit judge "from presiding over a water pollution lawsuit against Virginia-based Massey Energy because of his past attorney-client relationship with the defendant," The Associated Press reports.

Judge Michael Thornsbury's recusal had been sought last month by 550 current and former area residents who are suing Massey and a subsidiary "for injecting 1.4 billion gallons of coal slurry into worked-out underground mines between 1978 and 1987," the article said, adding that the lawsuit alleges "slurry seeped through cracks in the earth into the groundwater, poisoning drinking wells, and that decades of exposure put the plaintiffs at risk of cancers and other health problems."

Thornsbury declined to step aside in the case. Acting Chief Justice Robin Davis then rejected most of the allegations raised by lawyers for the plaintiffs, but later agreed to consider "a 1985 case in which Thornsbury — then an attorney, but not a judge — represented Rawl Sales," AP reported.

One of the plaintiffs in that case is also suing in the pending one. Davis concluded this week that the "past relationship could create the appearance of impropriety and lead to questions about his impartiality," the article said.

Both AP and The Charleston Gazette report that Davis cited the role of blasting damages claims in the 1985 lawsuit.

"Davis noted that an expert witness for the residents has reported that blasting activities by Massey may be one cause of fractured underground strata that allowed slurry injected by the company to contaminate local drinking water," the latter's article said.

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