After eight weeks, scores of witnesses, more than $100,000 in court costs and with several drowsy jurors, the Wilberg Mine trial finally is winding down.
Jury deliberations are expected to begin in about a week. Jurors, who have sat and sometimes nodded off during nearly 50 days of detailed and technical testimony, soon will decide who is responsible for the 1984 Wilberg Mine disaster that claimed the lives of 27 coal miners and cost Utah Power & Light Co. and its insurers millions.The trial is a result of an $86 million civil lawsuit brought by UP&L. The company hopes to be compensated for the $22 million it paid in an out-of-court settlement to widows and children of those killed in the mine fire Dec. 19, 1984. UP&L hopes to win $64 million more to reimburse insurance companies that covered UP&L losses resulting from the fire.
Jurors are faced with deciding who was at fault, to what degree they were at fault and the total damages. Fourth District Judge Ray M. Harding, who is hearing the case in a ballroom at the Excelsior Hotel, then will assess damages according to degree of comparative negligence determined by the jury.
"It's always a tough case to prove what happened during a fire in a mine when the artifacts stayed in the mine for so long," UP&L attorney Paul Felt said in reference to the months-long delay in recovering evidence from the mine.
UP&L also is suing Kaiser Alumninum and Chemical Corp., which produced underground aluminum ventilation structures known as "overcasts." Several of the structures buckled and collapsed from the heat of the fire, blocking escape routes.
In addition, UP&L, Ingersoll-Rand and Kaiser are suing Emery Mining. The mining company, in turn, has filed countersuits.
"The decision will be appealed, we're sure, no matter which way it goes," court executive Michael Havemann predicted.
UP&L may receive some compensation, depending on what the jury decides, but the only guaranteed winners in the lawsuit are the dozens of attorneys representing the six principals involved in the case.
In fact, the $140,000 cost of orchestrating the trial _ which covers juror meals, a $200 daily cost of renting the ballroom because the courtroom wasn't large enough and the cost of preparing a daily average of 270 pages of testimony transcripts at $11 per page _ is small change compared with attorneys' fees and trial preparation.
On Thursday, Felt estimated that attorneys' fees easily exceed $1 million. Other estimates, including attorneys' fees, travel, depositions, witness fees and preparation of exhibits, documents and videos, put the total cost of the trial at several million dollars _ all paid for by the principals.
"This is the biggest case we're aware of, in dollar amount, that's been heard in the state of Utah," Havemann said. "They're putting out a lot of money."
Despite the tendency some jurors have had to nod off during the past eight weeks, Felt complimented them. "They have held up remarkably well through this ordeal," he said.