January 11, 2014 in Idaho

Hecla says 2011 cave-in victim wasn’t in assigned area

By The Spokesman-Review
 

A miner who was killed during a cave-in at the Lucky Friday Mine was not in his assigned work area when the accident occurred, and that action contributed to his death, according to the mine’s owner.

In court documents filed this week, Hecla Mining Co. said Larry “Pete” Marek’s death was partly a result of his own “negligent and careless misconduct.”

Hecla is the subject of a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Marek’s family, which has accused the owner of the underground silver mine near Mullan, Idaho, of putting profits ahead of workers’ safety.

In an answer to the complaint, Hecla contends that Larry Marek and his brother, Mike, were assigned to work in a spray chamber, which is part of the mine’s air-conditioning system, on the evening of April 15, 2011. The men weren’t mining, because their regular work area was still clogged with rock from earlier blasting.

Instead of staying in the spray chamber, the Mareks chose to enter the nearby mining stope to check on the progress made during the previous shift and to hose down the rock pile, Hecla said in court documents. The Marek brothers’ own decision to enter the work area demonstrates that Hecla’s managers weren’t intentionally putting the men in harm’s way, the company said in court documents.

Larry Marek died during the cave-in that followed. The 53-year-old miner was buried in so much rubble that it took rescue workers nine days to recover his body.

“We don’t agree with the sequence of events or their significance as Hecla lays them out,” said Edward Havas, an attorney for the Marek family. “We think the facts and testimony will put them in a different light.”

Determining who is at fault is part of wrongful death litigation, Havas said. And in such cases, it’s not unusual for the party being sued to accuse the victim of actions that led or contributed to the fatality, he said.

“We’re at the very beginning states of the lawsuit,” Havas said. Through witness testimony and documents presented at a jury trial, the events leading up to the cave-in “will be fully fleshed out to really get the answer to what happened and how close or far apart from reality Hecla’s allegations are,” he said.

A trial date has not yet been scheduled. Hecla officials declined to comment. The company doesn’t discuss active lawsuits, said Stan Devereux, a Hecla spokesman who is an outside contractor.

In the lawsuit filed last year, Larry Marek’s family said his death resulted from Hecla’s use of mining methods that “intentionally and willfully” flouted federal safety regulations.

A federal investigation after the Lucky Friday cave-in determined that support pillars were being undercut to extract additional silver ore. In an accident report, Mine Safety and Health Administration officials said the Lucky Friday’s management engaged in “aggravated conduct” by allowing miners to work under unsupported rock.

Hecla was fined $360,000 for federal safety violations related to ground support in the Lucky Friday, which the company is contesting. However, Hecla has changed its mining practices to improve safety.

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