Jury To Be Selected In Suit Over Workers Who Died In Volcano Blast
SEATTLE (AP) _ Former Gov. Dixy Lee Ray, George Weyerhaeuser and families of Weyerhaeuser loggers killed in the cataclysmic explosion of Mount St. Helens more than five years ago are expected to testify in a trial accusing the timber company of failing to protect its workers.
Jury selection in the King County Superior Court trial was begin today. Lawyers said opening statements are likely Wednesday, with the trial expected to last four to six weeks.
Lawyers for the 10 plaintiffs will try to prove the Weyerhaeuser Co. knew it was too dangerous to keep crews working near the volcano.
″Weyerhaeuser knew its land was extremely dangerous and it took inadequate precautions to protect workers and others in the area near the mountain and led them to believe they were in a safe area when they were not,″ Alan Schulman of Seattle, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs, said Saturday.
This trial will determine liability, if any, said Ronald Franklin, Schulman’s co-counsel and a liability specialist from Houston. The penalty phase to settle damages would come in a second trial if the plaintiffs prevail.
Franklin said he expected all the plaintiffs to testify, as well as Ray, who was governor when the volcano erupted in the spring of 1980, and Weyerhaeuser, president of the timber company.
Judge James McCutcheon has issued a gag order in the case, but Weyerhaeuser lawyers have indicated they will argue Weyerhaeuser was not negligent because no one could have known Mount St. Helens would erupt the way it did on May 18, 1980 - in a lateral explosion that leveled 230 square miles of forests and killed 57 people.
George Weyerhaeuser and Ray have denied in affidavits that there was a ″deal″ that would have exempted ″red″ and ″blue″ restricted zones around the volcano from Weyerhaeuser lands, so logging could continue.
In a deposition filed in the case, a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey said he felt there was little chance of a lateral blast like the one that occurred.
The superintendent of Weyerhaeuser’s Camp Baker, Dick Nesbit, said in a deposition that company officials guaranteed there would be advance warning of an eruption. The logging camp was devastated by the eruption.
The suit was first filed against the state in 1981. Weyerhaeuser was added to the case in 1983. In 1984, the number of plaintiffs was reduced from 17 to 10. Last month the state was dismissed because of immunity.
The suit involves eight people killed while logging for Weyerhaeuser or connected to the company in some way, one injured logger and a man who lost equipment.
Most of the victims were on Weyerhaeuser land north and northwest of the mountain. The company owns 473,000 acres in the area.
Before the big eruption, the restricted zone was within 21/2 miles of the volcano summit on the north and west while the boundary stretched to 10 miles on the south and east.
Only three of the 57 victims were inside the restricted zones created by the governor to protect the public. They were a U.S. Geological Survey scientist, a newspaper photographer, and resort owner Harry Truman, who refused to leave his Spirit Lake lodge at the northern base of the mountain.