Coal Tattoo

Judge tosses Aracoma widows’ case against MSHA

U.S. District Judge John T. Copenhaver yesterday dismissed a lawsuit filed by the widows of coal miners Don Bragg and Ellery Hatfield against the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Copenhaver ruled that MSHA could not be held liable,  despite the clear failure of MSHA to do its job at the Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine prior to the January 2006 fire that killed Bragg and Hatfield.

I’ve posted a copy of the judge’s ruling here.  I’ve also posted copies of the original lawsuit, MSHA’s motion to dismiss, the Bragg and Hatfield response, and MSHA’s reply, for anyone who wants to delve more deeply into these legal issues.

Bruce Stanley, lawyer for the Bragg and Hatfield families, issued this statement following the judge’s decision:

The widows have done just about all that is within their power to shed light upon and hold accountable those responsible for the mindless greed and dereliction of duty that got their husbands killed.

We’ll have to assess whether there is the prospect of an appeal, but generally, the legal deck is stacked in favor of the government when it comes to these types of claims.

We believed that the Olson case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court represented a sea change in injured victims being able to hold the government accountable. Obviously the district court does not agree.

And if there is no liability to the families of the dead miners in Aracoma, where the government has basically flat out admitted it did not do its job, there is little likelihood that they will ever be called to account.

Indeed, in our case the court apparently has ruled that under West Virginia law, there is not even a special relationship between coal miner and inspector. So while building contractors can collect money damages from architects for project overruns, dead miners’ families cannot collect damages for MSHA’s decision not to do its job.

In his ruling, Judge Copenhaver wrote:

The circumstances of this action are undeniably tragic.

In light of the relevant West Virginia and federal case law, however, the court is unable to conclude that the substantive law of West Virginia, as presently assembled, would impose negligence liability on a “private individual under like circumstances” to the MSHA inspectors, and hence, the United States in this case.

To me, though, the most interesting parts of the ruling cited the MSHA Internal Review report on the Aracoma fire … for example:

MSHA’s investigation also revealed the inadequacies of its own previous inspections of Alma Mine. Indeed, the MSHA Review is aptly characterized as a comprehensive and stinging assessment of the Agency’s multiple failures to properly police the mine. For example, by late 2005, MSHA inspectors issued citations to Aracoma Coal for safety violations but failed to “identify and cite numerous violations that were in existence, neither did they require the mine operator to take corrective actions.

Judge Copenhaver continued:

Likewise, MSHA personnel breached “explicit Agency policy regarding Section 103(i) inspections [i.e., spot inspections]” by failing to “undertake reasonable efforts to detect mine hazards” and by exhibiting “a lack of initiative to appropriately conduct Section 103(i) inspections.


MSHA determined that its own inspectors were at fault for failing to identify or rectify many obvious safety violations that contributed to the fire.

More specifically:

[I]n the year before the January 19, 2006, fatal fire at the Alma Mine #1, MSHA did not conduct inspections in a manner that permitted us to effectively identify hazardous conditions at the mine, and did not utilize the Mine Act to effectively enforce health and safety standards promulgated to provide miners with the protections afforded by the statute. The Aracoma Coal Company’s indifference to health and safety conditions at the Alma Mine #1 and MSHA’s failure to more effectively enforce the Mine Act allowed significant hazards, many of which otherwise might have been identified and addressed, to continue in existence prior to the fatal fire. The Agency’s culpability rests with all persons who directly or indirectly were responsible for administering the MineAct at the Alma Mine #1, from the inspectors who conducted the mine inspections through the headquarters office personnel who ultimately were responsible for overseeing MSHA activities throughout the Nation.

As folks who follow mine safety issues know, internal reviews following other U.S. coal-mining disasters have found similar failures by MSHA to do its job. MSHA chief Joe Main has promised a rigorous internal review of his agency’s actions prior to the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster … it will be interesting to see what that review turns up.