It looks as if Utah Power & Light sued the wrong companies.
After about 10 hours of deliberations Friday, a five-woman, three-man jury placed blame for the 1984 Wilberg Mine disaster on UP&L and Emery Mining Co. - not on Ingersoll-Rand or Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical Corp.UP&L had brought an $86 million civil liability suit against the companies in hopes of being compensated for losses from the fire, which claimed the lives of 27 miners.
Jurors, however, determined that Emery Mining Co. officials were the ones negligent in connection with improper operation of the mine and "misuse or unreasonable use" of an air compressor manufactured by Ingersoll-Rand and underground ventilation structures known as "overcasts" manufactured by Kaiser Aluminum.
The air compressor may have started the fire, and the overcasts buckled and collapsed from the heat of the fire, thus blocking possible escape routes. But Emery was to blame, the jury ruled.
"I'm happy, very, very happy," said John Calimafde, counsel for Ingersoll-Rand.
Emery Mining attorney George Haley hurried from the courtroom following the verdict and was unavailable for comment. He told jurors on Thursday, however, that Emery Mining had hoped to gain "our self-respect" from the verdict.
"Justice was done," said Kaiser attorney Gary Weston. "The jury came down to the realization that the fault lay with those who were in the best position to determine the risk and to make judgments necessary in the mine procedures to guard against risk. We were hoping they (jurors) would see it that way, and they did."
Ingersoll-Rand attorneys and their witnesses, apparently, convinced the jury of what they had called "the reckless and gross negligence" of Emery Mining, which ran the mine for UP&L. Trial evidence indicated that Emery Mining officials had bypassed a safety switch designed to turn off the compressor in case of overheating and that they had damaged and removed the compressor's on-off switch.
A federal Mine Safety and Health Administration Report, not admitted into evidence during the nine-week trial, concluded that the compressor overheated after running unattended for nearly three days.
Jurors found that the "unreasonable use of the compressor (was) a proximate cause of the damage suffered by plaintiffs UP&L," according to a special verdict form.
UP&L attorney Paul Felt lamented the fact that evidence crucial to the case was entombed in the mine for several months following the fire before officials could retrieve it.
"It's a difficult burden for a plaintiff to prove," Felt said. "It's a very difficult burden for UP&L to bear in this case, to prove liability after all this time and after all the things that have happened."
The jury decided that the total damages that would fairly compensate UP&L's insurers for the company's property damage and business losses resulting from the fire totaled $50.3 million. UP&L had hoped to be compensated for a $22 million out-of-court settlement to widows and children of those killed in the mine and $64 million more to reimburse insurance companies that covered UP&L losses.