A new book highlights legal battles against a West Virginia coal giant | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

A new book highlights legal battles against a West Virginia coal giant

"It's two Pittsburgh lawyers at their best."

In some ways, it's the story of a big guy — coal kingpin Don Blankenship and his Massey Energy — beating up on little guys with help from a rigged judiciary. But it's also about two mismatched lawyers fighting for those little guys. And it's about the big corporate law firm that backed them against an energy giant that on another day might well have been its client.

The Price of Justice: A True Story of Greed and Corruption (Times Books) is the new book by acclaimed journalist Laurence Leamer. Leamer follows Pittsburgh attorneys Dave Fawcett and Bruce Stanley through a 14-year series of battles with Massey that began with a case that made it to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In Caperton v. Masssey, the Court held that a West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals judge whose campaign Blankenship bankrolled should have recused himself in the lower-court decision about a small coal company Massey drove into bankruptcy by reneging on a contract. 

But that case was just the tip of the iceberg in a story that came to include the deaths of 29 miners in 2010's Upper Big Branch explosion. Leamer, author of a best-selling trilogy on the Kennedys, became fascinated with the Reed Smith lawyers battling Massey. 

In a phone interview from his home in Washington, D.C., Leamer describes Fawcett as a third-generation Pittsburgh lawyer, slow and methodical. Stanley, meanwhile, "is this short fat kid from rural West Virginia who grew up in a house without indoor plumbing. ... He's very impulsive. He's often late."

Fawcett once won a $220 million settlement against Massey for Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel. Stanley represented two women whose husbands died in a Massey subsidiary mine. "He exposed the horrendous malfeasance of Massey in that mine," says Leamer — including faked safety drills and defective ventilation systems.

Leamer praises the two attorneys' tenacity, but also the steadfast support of their employer: "Very few law firms in America would have done what Reed Smith has done here," backing the attorneys all these years.

After Upper Big Branch, Leamer says "Blankenship was driven into retreat and Massey was sold [to Alpha Natural Resources]. ... Without [the lawyers], it wouldn't have happened.

"This is Reed Smith at its best. And it's two Pittsburgh lawyers at their best."

After a federal investigation into Upper Big Branch, four former Massey executives have been successfully prosecuted. Blankenship, says Leamer, could be next.