The West Virginia Supreme Court will soon be deciding whether Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) inspectors can be held liable for coal miners’ deaths. The federal Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals stated that it could find no case law, Constitutional authority, or state statutory authority to answer a “pure question of state law” that had not been addressed. The Fourth Circuit reached this conclusion in response to an April 2010 lawsuit filed by the widows of two miners who died when they could not escape a conveyer belt fire at the Aracoma Alma No. 1 mine in 2006. At the time, the mine was owned by Massey Energy Company, the same company that owned the Upper Big Branch mine that was the scene of West Virginia’s deadliest disaster.
During the 2006 conveyer belt fire, the miners had trouble finding their way out of the mine due to a malfunctioning ventilation system that led to smoke reducing their visibility. This helped prevent miners from locating an unmarked personal door that they could have used to escape. Although the miners had special breathing devices, they were not sufficiently trained in how to use them. Overall, 10 men escaped the mine alive, but the two miners at the heart of the lawsuit succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning. Had the MSHA inspectors done their job properly, their widows argue, their husbands might have survived.
The case was first heard in federal district court, where Judge John Copenhaver found that since the applicable West Virginia state law did not impose liability for negligence on private citizens under these circumstances, federal MSHA inspectors could not be held liable either. Judge Copenhaver dismissed the case, and it was later appealed to the Fourth Circuit. A three-judge panel on the Fourth Circuit noted that MSHA inspectors did not act with sufficient care necessary for preventing safety abuses. Although they issued 95 citations for violations, they did not impose or require corrective measures. The panel stated that the West Virginia Supreme Court needed to determine whether the applicable statute would impose negligence on a private party.
The widows’ attorney noted that they were pleased by this outcome, noting that too often, the federal government was used to federal courts “rubberstamping” the issue of a private party counterpart. Regardless, the miners’ widows will have another opportunity to make their case in court, and the outcome could have a positive effect on countless other mining injury and death cases.
While an employer should always be the first one responsible in cases where worker deaths are due to negligence, safety inspectors have a fundamentally important job of locating their violations and imposing fines and other punishments. Safety inspectors are meant to protect mine workers and those in other fields. When they fail on the job due to inattention or, sometimes, intentional actions, they should be held strictly accountable. MSHA inspectors should not be let off the hook just because they are federal workers and state negligent laws “don’t apply to them.”
If your loved one was killed in a mining accident and you believe that the reason was a lack of mine safety, you, too, can file a lawsuit against those responsible — whether the employer or the safety inspector. A West Virginia wrongful death attorney can help you understand the nuances of your case and advise you of any available recourse.