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Mark Wilson, Getty Images
Nelda Erickson, left, Kristin Kimber, Steve Allred, Mike Marasco, Cesar Sanchez, Sheila Phillips, Wendy Black and Jose Luis Payan testify Oct. 3.

The Crandall Canyon Mine disaster killed six miners plus three men trying to rescue them. So how much in death benefits do such disasters cost mine owners — or their insurance companies?

Not much — as little as $8,000 for miners who had no dependents and up to $176,000 or so (paid over the first six years) for those who did have dependents.

And that's in an era when even spilled McDonald's coffee or crude remarks by an NBA basketball coach have brought millions of dollars in jury awards.

Death benefits are limited by the workers compensation insurance program established by state legislatures, but payments from the program begin quickly and without the need of lawsuits to prove fault.

As long as mine owners (or any business owners) keep up with insurance premiums in that mandatory program, they by law cannot be sued by victims' families — unless the employer intentionally caused the harm.

"Some of those miners were making $80,000 a year, so that compensation really isn't much for their families," says attorney Colin P. King, who represents

most of the Crandall Canyon Mine victim families. "It doesn't come close to covering their true losses."

Some also say the system gives little real financial incentive for mine operators to improve safety, since that might cost more than would the increases in premiums for workmans compensation insurance from accidents.

"As dangerous as the industry is ..., there ought to be a mechanism for more significant compensation to injured miners and the families of miners who have been killed to get attention" for improved safety, says Ted Schmidt, a Tucson, Ariz., lawyer who has been involved in lawsuits against mining equipment manufacturers, since mine operators themselves are usually off-limits.

'No fault'

Workers compensation systems began about a century ago.

"It was an Industrial Revolution-era idea. Back then, workers were hurt all the time and brought civil suits. It was costly for everyone, and workers often were not compensated anyway," said Dennis Lloyd, senior vice president of the quasi-public Workers Compensation Fund of Utah insurance company.

"The compromise was to have this insurance (to pay medical bills and death benefits). It was a no-fault system. It paid if an accident was the fault of the worker or the employer. But the employer could not be sued for the accident," he said.

The Utah Labor Commission sets what benefits must be paid. Employers with even one part-time employee generally must participate by law, buying workers compensation insurance through a private company, the Workers Compensation Fund or by setting up funds to self-insure.

The Crandall Canyon Mine is insured through a private company, Rockwell Casualty of Pennsylvania, which declined to comment for this story.

Benefit schedules from the Labor Commission mandate a burial benefit of up to $8,000 — which may be all that a miner without dependents may receive.

Crandall Canyon victim Carlos Payan, who was single, may fall into that category or not even receive that because his body was not recovered for burial.

But his family might still receive more benefits. "If a miner's family was dependent on his income for living, it can apply for benefits," said Joyce Sewell, director of the Labor Commission's Industrial Accidents Division.

Of Payan, she said, "He apparently was sending money to his parents in Mexico and was helping pay for the school of a sister. We did tell them they would need to file an application, and a (commission administrative law) judge would make a decision."

Labor Commission formulas generally require giving those killed in industrial accidents two-thirds of their average weekly wage in weekly payments for six years. Also, the family receives an extra $5 a week for a dependent spouse and $5 each for up to four dependent children under age 18, or up to an additional $25 weekly.

The average wage for a coal miner in Utah is $714 a week, or $37,130 a year, according to the Department of Workforce Services. So a two-thirds payment of that as a death benefit would be $476 a week.

The maximum weekly payment allowed by Utah schedules, before the up to $25 additional weekly for dependents, is $565. Sewell said most of the miners killed at Crandall Canyon "were just about at the maximum of what they could get" for death benefits under Utah law.

Utah schedules limit the maximum that victim families could receive for the first six years after the death to $176,280.

Sewell said families can apply for benefits beyond those six years. Dependent children are eligible for benefits until they reach age 18. A spouse remains eligible indefinitely if still dependent on the income and if the spouse remains unmarried. After six years, benefits can be reduced by half if the family also receives Social Security death benefits.

"One benefit is the system is designed to start benefits immediately," Sewell said. "They don't have to sue and wait a long time or try to prove fault."

The benefit for mine owners — or any business owners — is they cannot be sued unless they intentionally caused the death or injury. "They cannot even be sued for gross negligence," Sewell said. "It is only if they essentially intentionally killed or harmed workers. It's almost an impossible standard to prove."

Others accountable?

Some victims' families sometimes try to sue a third-party contractor or manufacturer of equipment involved in an accident, because only the direct employer of the killed worker is exempt from lawsuits under the workers compensation system.

King said families of Crandall Canyon victims are looking at doing that. "We are very intensely preparing to file lawsuits," he said. While the owner of the mine is off-limits because of workers compensation, he said, they are looking at others who had sufficient input to operations and safety to hold them accountable for the accident.

King added, "The workers compensation system is not geared to recover all losses.... The more serious an injury — leading on up to death — the more that is not recovered. The gulf is getting wider."

If families win lawsuits against others for industrial accidents, they must repay the insurance company for workers compensation benefits it paid. "There is no double-dipping," King said.

Does the system give too little financial incentive for mine owners to improve safety?

Lloyd at the Workers Compensation Fund said that in general, more dangerous industries do pay higher workers comp premiums, and individual companies with a high number of claims also can have their premiums increased because of that, too.

For example, he said the National Council on Compensation Insurance has recommended a workers comp insurance premium for coal mining of $25.82 for every $100 in payroll.

That is relatively expensive. The suggested rates for a few other industries, Lloyd said, is 21 cents per $100 in payroll for clerical and office workers; $1.63 per $100 in payroll for retail store employees; $2.87 for restaurant workers; $3.52 for the newspaper industry; $9.82 for carpenters; and $17.28 for oil well drilling.

Attorney Edward Havas, a partner of King helping to represent Crandall Canyon families, said, "By themselves, the premiums and fines from MSHA (the Mine Safety and Health Administration) are not high enough to be a financial incentive to increase safety."

But he said other costs make safety wise, "including loss of production and loss of morale." He noted the Crandall Canyon disaster led owner Bob Murray to spend millions of dollars for rescue efforts, and cost millions more as he closed two mines afterward for what he said were attempts to improve safety.

Emily Spieler, dean of the Northeastern University Law School in Boston, agrees there is not much economic pressure for miner safety from the workers compensation system by itself.

"I ran the workers compensation system in West Virginia a few years ago. When I left, I was tempted to write (for a local newspaper) a story titled, 'How much does it cost to kill a West Virginia coal miner?' The answer is: not very much," she said.

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