Early on a winter morning in 1968, 99 men entered the cold, dark tunnels of the Consolidation Coal Company’s No. 9 Mine in Farmington, W.Va. Only 21 of them came back alive. When a ventilation fan failed, a safety alarm did not sound, and the buildup of coal dust and methane gas led to an explosion. Some men died where they stood. Others lived but suffocated in the toxic fumes. The bodies of most of those who died were never recovered.
Decades later, investigative journalist Bonnie Stewart’s book, "No.9: The 1968 Farmington Mine Disaster," detailed how the coal company and federal and state officials failed to protect the workers and described the struggle of the miners’ widows to gain justice and transform coal mine safety legislation.
The revelations in her book helped prompt a 2014 lawsuit on behalf of the miners’ families. The suit, which seeks class action status, alleges that Consolidation covered up key evidence about the explosion. As part of an effort to defend itself from the suit, Consolidation served Stewart with a subpoena last year, seeking to compel the production of her research notes and communications with sources.
Stewart enlisted pro bono help from Davis Wright Tremaine, which has a long history of success in defending reporter’s privilege. In December 2015, our team won a decision from a magistrate judge in California denying the mine company’s motion to compel, on reporter’s privilege grounds.
"This was a total victory for the client and an excellent opinion from the judge," says Jonathan Segal, an associate in our Los Angeles office, who brought the matter to the firm and led the defense, including handling the argument in federal court. Two other associates, Jason Harrow and Zeb Zankel, also got valuable federal court experience in the case. The team was overseen by partner Rochelle Wilcox.
"This is a great example of our media practice group applying some of its unique subject matter skills to help out an individual pro bono client on an issue of tremendous public import," said Jonathan.
Stewart is currently a journalism lecturer at California State University, Fullerton, where she also serves as adviser for the student newspaper, Daily Titan. In an interview with California’s legal newspaper, The Daily Journal, Stewart described the journalist’s privilege as a vital protection. Compelling the production of unpublished material "hampers a reporter’s ability to report," she said. "People aren’t going to talk to you if they can’t trust you with their stories and trust you to tell their stories in an accurate manner." She called the case an important legal lesson for her students.