Fourth Circuit Upholds Criminal Conviction For “Reckless Disregard” of Mine Safety Laws


On January 19, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit upheld the criminal conviction of Donald Blankenship, the former Chairman and CEO of Massey Energy Company (MEC), the operator of the Upper Big Branch Coal Mine in Montcoal, West Virginia. In April 2010, an accident at this mine resulted in the death of 29 miners, and Mr. Blankenship was indicted and convicted of conspiring to violate federal mine safety laws. He was sentenced to be imprisoned for one year and to pay a fine of $250,000, the maximum punishment that could be assessed pursuant to 30 U.S.C. § 820(d). The case is U.S. v. Donald L. Blankenship.

Evidence was presented to the jury that Mr. Blankenship was aware of many mine safety violations at this mine, but ignored them and reduced the mine’s safety staff before the accident took place. The Fourth Circuit held that the defendant could be convicted for willfully violating mine safety laws through his “reckless disregard” of  or “plain indifference” to the applicable regulations. The Fourth Circuit noted that the Supreme Court precedent confirms that “that reckless disregard can amount to criminal willfulness.”