Families of W.Va. mine disaster victims ask judge to lift gag order in criminal case

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BECKLEY, West Virginia — Families of some of the 29 West Virginia coal miners killed in a 2010 explosion have asked a federal judge to lift a gag order in the criminal case against the mining company's former chief executive.

The Charleston Gazette reports (http://bit.ly/1yCiIjn ) that lawyers for the estates of 14 of the victims filed the motion Thursday in federal court in Beckley. The families want the gag order lifted so they can testify freely to West Virginia lawmakers about bills that would narrow the rights of workers to sue employers over workplace injuries and deaths.

They were joined in the motion by surviving Upper Big Branch miners Stanley Stewart and Charles Williams, and by the West Virginia Association for Justice, a group of lawyers who represent injured workers and families of workers killed on the job.

"To forbid victims and families of the victims (who are victims themselves) from speaking and participating in government is a breach of the social contract and unconscionable under the First Amendment," the families said in the new motion.

U.S. District Judge Irene Berger imposed the gag order the day after former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship was indicted on mine safety and security charges. Earlier this month, Berger denied a motion by five news organizations to remove the gag order although she did restore public access to the indictment and court orders in the case. Other documents remain sealed.

The filing comes just one day after several Upper Big Branch families appeared at a House Judiciary Committee public hearing on a bill that would limit the circumstances under which workers or surviving families can file lawsuits against employers whose safety violations led to injuries or deaths. Some family members spoke at the hearing but did not discuss details of the Upper Big Branch incident, said petitioners' attorney Tim Bailey.

Blankenship faces a four-count indictment that alleges he conspired to violate health and safety standards at Upper Big Branch.

Information from: The Charleston Gazette, http://www.wvgazette.com

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