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Buffalo Creek Disaster Essay, Research Paper

Imagine being woken up in the early morning and having your life be changed by a single horrific even. This situation was like no other coal disaster. This was the result of the irresponsibility of big business not caring for the well being of regular citizens. This case was a first in that the coal miners were not the victims, but their families were. The coal miners were not going to sit around and let this go by, they are ready to fight back.

On an early February morning in 1972, one of the countries worst man-made disasters occurred in Buffalo Creek in West Virginia. Over 130 million gallons of water and waste rushed down a narrow creek and slammed into a small coal-mining town. The tidal wave was 20 to 30 feet tall and sped down the mountain at 30 miles per hour. Instantly, the numbers of deaths were over 125. The majority of deaths were from women and children unable to free them selves of the water cluttered with debris ranging from homes to railroad tracks. When the tidal wave seized the remaining 4,000 survivors were left to an entire town destroyed. All homes and possessions were gone in the matter of seconds.

This case was unique in the way of; the coal miners were not ready to take the small settlement offered by the Coal Company. The coal miners were out to look for the Coal Company to take responsibility for the act. And make sure that this kind of event would never happen again. They wanted the Coal Company to pay for all their sufferings, including mental and property damages

After this horrible disaster, the 4,000 survivors were seeking revenge in a way. They wanted to get to the heart of this matter and that was Pittston. He was the person that was CEO of the company that owned the Buffalo Creek coal mine. After the event occurred, the coal miners wanted to file a lawsuit against Pittston. A lawyer by the name of Gerald Stern started to look into this matter after hearing about the disaster.

Before joining the law firm that Stern was apart of during the case, He was a civil rights lawyer for the department of Justice. The law firm that he was involved with during the case was Arnold & Palmer based out of Washington D.C. Stern traveled a good amount of the southeast trying cases in voting discrimination cases for the Justice department. When the Voting Act of 1965 went in action, it was guaranteed that all black southerners would be able to vote. Stern, after considering what future he had in this field, deiced to leave the justice department and move onto a different type of legal field.

After working in Arnold & Palmer for a number of years trying cases for large cooperation?s, attempting to sue the Government. It was deiced that the entire lawyer staff had to try Pro Bono cases for a year. Pro Bono cases are public interest cases. When the firm was in its third year cycle of trying these cases, it was Sterns turn. He had not found anything that really was a life changing case. He deiced to go to a therapist and told them that he was very bored and lacked interest in being a lawyer. The next thing he knew, he was asked to give the forty dollars for the amount of time he was there and never went back to a therapist again.

It wasn’t until the day that he received a call from his friend that worked for the Environmental Defense Fund and was told that their was a case that he would be very interested in looking into. Stern deiced that he would look further into this case. As Stern went about finding more about this case, he met up with the lawyer representing the Buffalo Creek Survivors, Charlie Cowan. Stern wanted to know everything that was going on with the case. Cowan explained to him, how he wanted an out-of-state firm to take over the proceedings of the case. The reason being, the coal companies controlled the majority of West Virginia and having a case brought up against a coal company in West Virginia would be a victory for the Coal Company. Stern and Cowan deiced to contact the Arnold and Palmer and try to receive approval on representing the survivors of Buffalo Creek. When the time came and Stern received approval from his firm, he did had know idea what he was getting himself into.

In researching further into the Buffalo Creek Disaster, he found that the Pittston Company owned the Dam that gave way and caused the disaster. Pittston knew that his company was at fault and try to say that the disaster was an “Act of G-D? This was completely wrong in that an “Act of G-D” is a natural disaster such as a hurricane, tornado, or flooding. Yes there was flooding but, the Dam that was put up by the company was supposed to do its job and hold back the water. The problem is, the Dam failed so it is the responsibility of the Pittston Company.

Pittston thought that if he claimed that issue, the survivors would attempt to sue The Buffalo Creek Mining Company and not them. If that were the situation, it would have to been seen in the West Virginia State Court. Stern sued Pittston Company because they were based out of New York and they would be able to be seen in a Federal Court away form West Virginia. This was made possible by; the Constitution permit citizens form other states to sue other citizens in a Federal Court. Also, Stern realized that the Dam was not inspected; therefore, the State would be at fault for the disaster as well.

When Stern and Harry decided to check out the disaster at Buffalo Creek, they were absolutely amazed on what happened there. When they arrived nothing was there. The Only thing left was a small Stream flowing down Middle Fork making its down through some black Sludge. When Stern received aerial pictures of the disaster, things started to become much more understandable. Their was no way that this incident was caused by an ?Act of G-D? because if the dam had done its job, The waters would of held up and nothing would of happen. Instead the dam was not built right and therefore the disaster was an accident waiting to happen.

Stern called a meeting in the town of Buffalo Creek. Over 100 families showed up in the Grade school gymnasium. Stern explained how he was going to charge the, 25 percent contingent fee, plus expenses. Stern had to be careful of this fee because if he made the fee any lower a lawyer by the name of, Amos Wilson, a lawyer for coal-miming accidents in Logan county, would say Stern is Violating the professional code. When Stern returned to his firm in Washington, he was asked to represent 450 survivors. Stern knew that this was going to a tremendous undertaking.

Stern?s next problem that he was going to be faced with was, other lawyers being mad that he was representing clients from out-of-state. It wasn?t until Stern talked to someone from the West Virginia Bar Ethics Committee, his problems were solved. The person explained to him that there was no problem with him doing this. The only way that it would be a problem if any type of soliciting of business were occurring.

The next step was for Stern to get the true stories from witnesses of the disaster. He needed to gather enough in formation on survivor?s stories to get the case in order. The testimony?s that were given to Stern during this time period would play a crucial rule in the outcome of this case. Stern now how to figure out how he was going to sue in this lawsuit. He had two options: Go for Buffalo Creek Mining Cimoany or Pittston. IF he went for The Buffalo Creek Mining Company, the case would be tried in Logan County and he knew some lawyers there who could pull some strings. If he sued at the Federal Court Level, he would have a very difficult time. Stern decides to go for it in the Federal level at the United States District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia.

Next, Stern had to find the right kind of Judge, this is known as Judge shopping. HE needed a court with 2 Judges and that led him to Charleston. In Charleston the judge?s names were, Dennis R. Knapp and Judge K. K. Hall. The right judge in a case like this was a crucial factor in the outcome of this case.

Piercing the Cooperate Veil is a term to describe the procedures to go through the cooperate legal structure. Stern needed another way then relying on a Judge like Judge Christine that new what piecing the cooperate meant. Stern could not rely on the diversity of citizenship between Pittston and the survivors. He realized after much consideration that he would have to rely on this matter until the judge or Grand Jury deiced on this matter. Stern needed Pittston to admit to his illegal actions. Stern realized that suing a company like Buffalo Creek for 52 million dollars is not a realistic situation due to the fact, they do not have 52 million dollars.

Stern needed to rely on the idea of mental suffering. This issue has never been brought up in a case and would be the first of its kind. Luckily, Judge Christine removed himself from the case and then it was passed down to Judge Knapp, he also passed it off. It then came to Judge K.K. Hall. Judge Hall was a very qualified and fair judge who had an open mind on new cases. Stern received his first brake by the Judge when, Pittston asked for the case to be dismissed and The Judge denied it and wanted to proceed with the testimony?s of the survivors.

Dr. Lifton is the Chairman at Yale University?s American Studies Department. He was a sociologist, and he was able distinguish two factors of the psychic impairment prevalent of the survivors of the Creek disaster. He discovered that the survivors had the same symptoms as people that were exposed to a horrific event. The doctors discovered that the survivors were experiencing the five factors of survivor syndrome. The first factor was Death imprint; it basically means that of memories and images of the disaster. The second factor is death guilt, this means that the survivors feel guilty because people die and they didn?t. The third is psychic numbing, this means people felt depressed from living. They still feel in shock from the event. The forth is impaired human relationships, this means people feel weak when they form a new relationship with someone else. The fifth factor is significance, which is giving their death encounter ?significance.? These entire element combined are called survivor syndrome.After some time in the case Stern updated plaintiffs case and had to add 200 more claims. That made the total number of plaintiff?s case 650 people and the total damage claim was 64 million dollars.

Stern wanted this issue to be one of the main points in the case. He also discovered that a good amount of people watched he disaster unfold on top of a hill. Stern discovered that the ABC TV network had found that Pittston was fined 2 million dollars in fines since the 1969 Coal Mine Health and Safety law. It was found that Pittston had not paid any of the fines.

The next issue that faced Stern was ambulance chasing. This means, when a lawyer rushes to an accident and seeks legal representation. A lawyer with the name of Mr. St. Clair had written an angry letter to the Committee on Unlawful Practices and explained how Stern was doing this. It was explained that the Supreme Court made it ok to rush to an incident of this kind. So, Stern was let off the hook. The judge se the date for the case: July 15.

Stern needed to have all the cases finished by May 1. After all the examinations were completed by the University of Cincinnati Medical School?s Department of Psychiatry explained that everyone that survived the disaster developed some kind of mental and emotional trauma. During the case, 631 people were interviewed. Out of that number, 9 had no distress.

Stern was ready to rap up the case with Pittston. The number that Stern came up was 32 million dollars and Pittston agreed but still wanted to meet and talk about it. Zane (One of Pittston?s Lawyers) and discussed a 3 million dollar settlement. Stern thought was very low so, they went over all the testimonies from the doctors again to work out a more realistic agreement.

I conclusion, the survivors that were involved in the disaster were compensated but, will always have the horrible image of the terror that they faced. I feel Stern did good job in the case. He had enough courage to start a first of a kind case and won. IT was good that a settlement was reached and a long court trial did not take place. I feel that if the there were a trial, the pain for the majority of the survivors would continue to linger in their minds. By them knowing that they were not wrong and Pittston was it eases the minds of the survivors.

If I had a chance to be represented by Stern, I would take the opportunity. I feel that it is very important to have a lawyer that is always on top of the game and is willing to take chances. What he did for those survivors, no one else could of even came close. He gave them a feeling of happiness knowing that they fought back against the Mining Company. Even though the pain and suffering might be there, they will always know that will have a life in the future.


By Gerald M.Stern

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