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4th Cir Asks W. Va. Supreme Court to Weigh in on Mining Lawsuits

By Robyn Hagan Cain on July 19, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled this week that the West Virginia Supreme Court should decide whether Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) inspectors can be held liable for coal miners' deaths, reports CBS News.

The appellate court characterized the issue as "a pure question of state law, which has not been squarely addressed," and noted that it was "a matter of exceptional importance for West Virginia."

On January 19, 2006, an accumulation of combustible coal dust caused a deadly fire in Massey Energy's Aracoma Alma No. 1 mine. There were attempts to extinguish the fire and contain the smoke, but they were thwarted by inadequate safety measures including:

  • A fire hose rendered useless because "the threads on the fire hose coupling did not match the threads on the outlet",
  • A lack of water because "the main water valve had been closed at the source, cutting off water to the area where the fire had started",
  • Inadequate ventilation controls and ventilation safety barriers that failed to warn the miners of the danger and allowed smoke to flow "in the wrong direction, deeper into the mine ... flooding the emergency escape ways",
  • The absence of functioning CO detectors, and
  • Malfunctioning communications equipment that delayed warning the miners of the danger and delayed evacuation.

Don Israel Bragg and Ellery Hatfield were trapped in the underground blaze and smoke, and ultimately died from carbon monoxide intoxication.

MSHA's investigation of the mine fire revealed numerous violations of the Mine Safety and Health Act (Mine Act), and the inadequacies of its own previous inspections of the mine. MSHA determined that its inspectors were at fault for failing to identify or rectify many obvious safety violations that contributed to the fire.

Bragg and Hatfield's widows sued the federal government in 2010, invoking the federal district court's jurisdiction under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), which waives the government's sovereign immunity for torts committed by federal employees acting within the scope of their employment "under circumstances where the United States, if a private person, would be liable to the claimant in accordance with the law of the place where the act or omission occurred."

The district court dismissed the action because, in its view, under West Virginia law, a private person under the alleged circumstances would not be liable in a negligence action for the wrongful death of the miners.

Since the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals could locate no case law, constitutional authority or statute that definitively answered whether the suit could progress in West Virginia, the appellate court has asked the West Virginia Supreme Court to decide whether a private party conducting inspections of a mine and mine operator for compliance with mine safety regulations is liable for the wrongful death of a miner resulting from the private party's negligent inspection.

If the state court permits the lawsuit, it could result in a flood of FTCA mining lawsuits.

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