Coal Tattoo

Aracoma ruling: Bad news for MSHA

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.