Aracoma ruling: Bad news for MSHA

February 5, 2013 by Ken Ward Jr.

West Virginia’s state Supreme Court just released a long-awaiting ruling that certainly complicates things for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration. As we reported on the Gazette’s website:

The state Supreme Court on Tuesday paved the way for the widows of two miners killed in the 2006 Aracoma Mine fire to pursue their lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Labor over lax enforcement of federal mine safety standards at the operation.

In a 5-0 ruling, the justices said that a private party conducting mine inspections is liable for the wrongful death of a miner resulting from that private party’s negligent inspection.

The decision appears to allow Delorice Bragg and Freda Hatfield to pursue their suit against the labor department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration, which has publicly conceded major inspection and enforcement lapses at the Aracoma operation.

“A private inspector who inspects a work premises for the purpose of furthering the safety of employees who work on said premises owes a duty of care to those employees to conduct inspections with ordinary skill, care, and diligence commensurate with that rendered by members of his or her profession,” said the ruling, written by Justice Robin Davis.

The case stems from the Jan. 19, 2006, fire at Massey Energy’s Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine in Logan County. A crew of workers trying to evacuate the underground tunnels ran into thick black smoke in their primary escape tunnel, and was forced to try find another way out. Two workers, Don Bragg and Ellery Hatfield, became separated from the group, got lost, and eventually succumbed to the smoke.

You can read the ruling yourself here, and here’s a bit more of our story to explain the legalities of this:

Citing MSHA’s failures, the Bragg and Hatfield families sued MSHA under the federal Tort Claims Act, alleging federal officials were partly responsible. A suit against Massey was settled, with the terms being kept confidential.

In February 2011, U.S. District Judge John T. Copenhaver threw out the case, concluding that it wasn’t allowed because under West Virginia law a private person in circumstances similar to MSHA’s would not have been held liable. Under the FTCA, the federal government is liable in the same manner, and to the same extent, as private individuals would be in similar situations.

Then, in July 2012, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said it found “no clear controlling West Virginia precedent” on the issue, and asked the state Supreme Court to consider the matter.

Bruce Stanley, attorney for the Bragg and Hatfield families, told me in a statement:

The opinion marks another step in the widows’ continuing efforts to bring to justice all those responsible for the senseless disaster at Aracoma. The conscious decision of coal companies to ignore the most basic of mine safety laws and instead just run coal should not and cannot excuse government regulators from their independent responsibility to enforce those laws, regardless of the prevailing political climate or perceived economic pressures.  Hopefully, the threat of a private suit will serve as an incentive for them to do their jobs instead of turning their heads.

7 Responses to “Aracoma ruling: Bad news for MSHA”

  1. This may be the most important thing to happen for coal miner safety in 100 years. Thank you for your courage to our Supreme Court, all five of them. Congratulations to our coal miners.

  2. coal miner says:

    I am a retired federal mine inspector. This ruling will only affect the mine inspector in my veiw.

    If you can answer this question. Will it affect the supervisor, Assistant District and the District Manager, and the Administrator for MSHA?

  3. BOUTTIME says:

    This ruling discusses personal liability to Federal mine inspectors, WV State mine inspectors also look at the same mines, but there’s no mention of them in this ruling. So are WV state mine inspectors also liable for not doing their jobs properly or not?

  4. Bruce Stanley says:

    I hope Ken will forgive my intrusion onto his blog, but I thought I might try to address some of the questions raised by the other commenters.

    The general question before the WV Supremes was whether a private inspector (presumably an individual or a company) could be held liable under WV law for negligent inspections that result in personal injury to miners. In a word, the court answered “Yes.”

    That’s important for the Aracoma widows’ case because federal law provides that the US government can be held liable under a given state’s law to the same extent as a private person engaged in the same activity. Thus, the “liable party” responsible for paying any damages would not be the individual inspector, but the US. Any trial will be a bench trial before a federal judge (unless the judge wants an “advisory” jury) and comparative fault principles apply (basically, how liable is the government compared to the coal operator and so what share of the total damages should it bear).

    Depending on the evidence uncovered, that liability could also reach the acts (or omissions) of the Assistant District and District Managers. That is actually what the case is about for the widows –what was the nature of the relationship between Aracoma (i.e., Massey) and MSHA District 4 that allowed the Alma Mine #1 to get into such terrible shape? Why was the law not enforced there? In short, they’re after the truth.

    WV state inspectors are not liable for negligent inspections even with this ruling because they are not “private parties” and the state, unlike the federal government, has not otherwise agreed to allow itself to be sued for their negligence. Hope that all helps to explain what is a relatively arcane area of the law.

  5. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Thanks for that comment, Bruce.

  6. BOUTTIME says:

    Bruce, thank you for the info. Without a doubt the best & clearest explanation of legal / technical info I have ever read on this blog. I am truly saddened to hear that WV State employees cannot be held liable for not doing their jobs because I had some WVDEP – OMR employees lined up for some possible legal punitive action. If I’m not mistaken state employees hide behind ” Qualified Immunity Umbrella” but that umbrella may have a hole or two in it.

  7. John1958 says:

    The coal companies will also receive adverse effects from this ruling. Inspectors will be forced to write every nickel and dime violation. Recently at the road bottom mine where I work a fed mine inspector cited the company for men crapping in the return entry. When men have to go use the bathroom this is a common place for them to do so and have been doing this since the beginning of coal mining. Guess what, now it’s a problem. No wonder MSHA gets a bad rap all the time. It is clear they are no longer out for the safety of the miner, they instead are out to write tickets and drive companies out of business. This is a coal miners perspective.

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