Sample Law Case Studies Paper on The Buffalo Creek Disaster: Application to Law


The Buffalo Creek accident described in Gerald Stern’s book on the law suits that followed could have been avoided under the consideration of environmental and common laws regarding protection of those for whom one cares. The company planning and implementing the objectives of the Buffalo Creek coal company should have conducted a risk assessment of the area with regards to the establishment of the dam and its intended use. However, failure to pay attention or to conduct thorough assessment of the area increased the risk of accidents occurring and the company, in spite of being warned about the potential of the dam giving way, remained adamant on its use. Furthermore, the floods that resulted as a result of the dam failure were clearly due to violation of design principles and environmental factors yet the responsible company was still intent on blaming natural phenomena on the event. Such careless actions can be addressed under the tort law in case they result in harm for the community or for the individuals directly involved.

Application of Tort Law to Buffalo Creek

The Buffalo Creek case is a typical example of a situation where one party’s ignorance of the impacts of their actions caused harm to another. The harm under consideration could have been foreseen by the company using the dam and they were even warned about it with no positive response. Tort law was established as one of the common law principles used to achieve different objectives within communities. The specific responsibilities of tort law include: prevention and deterrence of accidents, to ensure compensation of accident victims and their families, providing an effective process for following up on such foreseeable circumstances, and ensuring there is fairness in handling cases involving such an accident or event.

In the case of the Buffalo Creek floods, a court case would follow the conventional approach to confirming whether there was an act of negligence, which is characterized under a tort offence. Negligence in this regard is described as the breach of due care, which results in harm or death of the victim. There are various elements that have to be considered for a given party to be said to have acted in negligence of their responsibilities. The first is possession of a duty of care towards the victim. A duty of care means that the accused should have had a certain level of responsibility towards preventing harm and property destruction to the victim. In the case under consideration, this duty can be deduced to have been present. As the company using the dams and the mines, it was the responsibility of the Buffalo Mining Company to protect the residents of Buffalo Creek from any potential floods. Since the Buffalo Mining Company was a subsidiary of Pittston’s Corporation, the latter by extension, held a duty of care towards the residents of the area of their operations.

Duty of care also comes with a consideration as to whether the events surrounding the accident were foreseeable. Stern (14) reported that the dams had been inspected and it was established that they were at risk of breaking the banks. The first dam had already shown weaknesses, same as the second and the third ones. The company had even issued some informal warnings about potential flooding in the past, implying that such an outcome was foreseeable. It would thus be unreasonable for the company to blame an Act of God for the accident and the subsequent losses. Upon establishment that there was indeed a duty of care by the plaintiff, the next course of action would have been to determine whether the actions of Pittston’s Corporation amounted to a breach of that duty and whether the harm caused was directly a result of the actions. For the case, it is clear that there was a breach of care by the coal mining company. Before starting to use the dams, the company should have confirmed the suitability of the area for the development of the dam. Failure to do this or to take action when informed of the potential of flooding by the state authorities amounts to a breach of care. This eventually resulted in the flooding, death of 125 people, injury for over 4,000 people and los s of homes for more than 1,000 (Stern 7).


Based on the facts of the case, it can be concluded that Pittston’s corporation as directly responsible for the harm and deaths that occurred during the Buffalo Creek disaster. The company came to an agreement with the locals to handle everything out of court. In the process, the company paid more than the state recommended amount of $10,000 per victim at the time (Stern 23). However, the case could have helped create a precedent that would force mining companies to protect the people with whom they have proximity as a well as other people’s properties. It is also clear that the company to some extent used intimidation, by warning the victims that they would not get much even by hiring lawyers and or taking the case to court. The roles of Pittston’s Corporation in the frustration of the victims are as clear as their lack of will to compensate the victims based on their blaming an ‘Act of God’ for the incident (Stern 21-22). In such situations, the tort law can provide a perfect reprieve for the victims.

Works Cited

Stern, Gerald M. The Buffalo Creek disaster. Vintage Books.