MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) -- Gas drillers who plowed through a cemetery for a historically black coal camp community in 2004 were ordered to pay $200,000 in punitive damages Wednesday, on top of the $700,000 in compensatory damages a Logan County jury awarded a day earlier.Jurors ruled Tuesday that Equitable Production Co. and subcontractor General Pipeline were reckless when a bulldozer operator desecrated the Crystal Block Cemetery near Sarah Ann. Equitable is a subsidiary of Pittsburgh-based EQT, which called the incident in southern West Virginia "a regrettable situation for everyone involved.""We want to assure the families that the gravesites were not willfully or purposely desecrated," said spokeswoman Linda Robertson. "EQT employees were not directly involved in this incident and, in fact, EQT did not receive notification of the incident for more than one week after it had occurred."The plaintiffs' attorney, meanwhile, said the verdicts showed the civil justice system works.
"This jury has found that Equitable's reckless treatment of mountain cemeteries will not go unpunished," said attorney Kevin Thompson."Everyone told us that we had no chance of winning this trial in Logan County," he said. "Fourteen African-Americans standing up against a gas company in Logan County just shows the power of our jury system, and why we must protect it."Former state Supreme Court Justice Elliott "Spike" Maynard, sitting as a senior status judge, oversaw the trial in Logan.General Pipeline shoved aside head stones and metal markers while building a road to a drilling site, but it had argued that it was an "innocent and unknowing entry."
The lawsuit, filed in 2006, accused General Pipeline and Equitable of negligence, nuisance, trespass, desecration of grave sites and deliberate infliction of emotional distress.The damage was discovered by James Olbert, whose father, Daniel, is buried there, but it continued while two more roads were built.Resident Bud Baisden pleaded with a crew member to stop, but the worker used racial slurs in describing who was buried there and the bulldozing continued, the lawsuit said.Although the cemetery was unfenced, relatives said they visited every Memorial Day to clean up and lay flowers.A 2007 survey conducted for the plaintiffs found 22 marked and unmarked graves, and five displaced markers within an 87-by-59-foot area.Investigators said they found fragments of metal markers in the bulldozed road, a displaced granite marker and a displaced marble marker indicating the grave of a Korean and World War II veteran who died in 1962.The last known burial was in 1965, although some graves are known to be much older.
The cemetery was on land long owned by a real estate company that had leased property to coal and gas operators since the early 1900s.