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Gas firms lose appeal on cemetery damage ruling

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Two natural gas companies must pay nearly $1 million in compensation for damaging a cemetery and overturning gravestones as they built a road to a drilling site in a historically black coal mining town in Logan County.

General Pipeline Construction Co. and Equitable Production Co., now EQT, must pay $914,000 to relatives of people buried in the cemetery in Sarah Ann, a small coal town near the Mingo County border where black coal miners lived.

Late Friday afternoon, former Supreme Court Justice Elliott "Spike" Maynard released an order turning down an appeal filed by the two companies.

General Pipeline and EQT were seeking to overturn a Nov. 20, 2012, Logan County jury verdict that found the companies guilty of damaging a cemetery and some of its graves, including overturning gravestones and metal markers.

Relatives of some people buried in the cemetery filed a lawsuit after General Pipeline plowed through the cemetery in 2004, building a road to haul pipelines to a drilling site to transmit natural gas for EQT.

General Pipeline and EQT filed motions for a new trial after the verdict, and Maynard held a hearing in February. He denied those motions, but neither company would sign an order formally recognizing Maynard's ruling, so another hearing was required.

General Pipeline and Equitable wanted to stop all proceedings about damages to the cemetery until they resolved coverage issues with their own insurance companies.

The companies now have 30 days to appeal the verdict to the West Virginia Supreme Court, according to Maynard's 10-page order issued on Friday.

Maynard's order states, "A new trial should not be granted unless it is reasonably clear that prejudicial error has crept into the record or that substantial justice has not been done."

Maynard's ruling stated that "there was no error in the [Logan County] Court" with respect to evidence introduced, testimony from expert witnesses and instructions to the jury.

"There were no cumulative errors which would make the verdict unsupportable," against the two companies, Maynard wrote.

"This case was about the desecration of the Crystal Block Cemetery. The jury found defendant General Pipeline Construction Co. 70 percent at fault and Equitable Production, now EQT, 30 percent at fault," said David Barney Jr., a Charleston lawyer who represents the relatives of people buried in the cemetery,

The Logan County jury awarded $714,000 in compensatory damages from General Pipeline, including $14,000 for restoration of the cemetery and $700,000 for "emotional damages."

Those damages include $50,000 for each of the 14 black families that filed the lawsuit.

A week later, the jury assessed an award of $200,000 against Equitable.

Attorneys for General Pipeline and Equitable could not be reached for comment.

During last fall's Logan County jury trial, Equitable lawyer Daniel R. Schuda described the incident as an "innocent and unknowing entry." He argued that no records indicated a cemetery was there and that Equitable's equipment driver caused no damage.

Kevin Thompson, a lawyer representing the surviving relatives, stated during the trial, that Crystal Block Cemetery included several graves that had modern headstones, including one for a veteran who fought in World War II and Korea.

During the trial, Thompson also alleged that an Equitable bulldozer driver uttered racial slurs when resident Bud Baisden urged him not to disturb graves in the cemetery.

James Olbert, whose father Daniel is buried in the cemetery, was the first person to observe damages created by the General Pipeline and EQT project.

Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.


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