West Virginia Supreme Court Hears Argument Over Whether State Liability Law Applies to Federal Inspectors

gaveljustice.jpegA few months ago, this blog discussed a ruling by the federal Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which allowed two widows to move forward with a lawsuit against federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) inspectors over the deaths of their husbands in the Aracoma Alma 1 mine in 2006. Delorice Bragg and Freda Hatfield claimed that because the federal inspectors never acted to prevent safety abuses, their husbands were killed in a mine fire. They appealed to the Fourth Circuit to consider whether a West Virginia liability law could be applied to federal MSHA officials. The Fourth Circuit ruled that the question should be answered by the West Virginia Supreme Court.

Thus, it is now up to the West Virginia Supreme Court to settle the issue. The case is now underway, with the widows’ attorney arguing that federal inspectors shared the blame for the husbands’ deaths and should therefore share the liability. A U.S. Attorney for the Department of Justice, meanwhile, argues that although the MSHA inspectors did not perform as well as they should, the negligence of the mine owner — Massey Energy Company, the company that also owned the Upper Big Branch mine — should not be ignored. Massey Energy had pled guilty to criminal negligence and agreed to pay $4.2 million in criminal fines and civil penalties.

The task before the West Virginia Supreme Court is to determine whether the state’s liability law would apply to a private inspector under the same circumstances. If so, under federal law, the two widows would be able to pursue an appeal of their lawsuit against MSHA officials. While the widows’ attorney tried to tie the MSHA inspectors’ actions to those of private inspectors under very like circumstances, the Department of Justice cited evidence of cases in other states where the MSHA has been shielded from state law. The Department of Justice warned that if the widows could sue federal inspectors, so could the community of Aracoma, where the mine is located.

It remains to be seen, of course, what the Supreme Court justices decide. There is no indication as to how long it will take before the Supreme Court issues a decision. However, we at the Wolfe Law Firm hope that the justices find that a private inspector would be found liable under state law under the same circumstances. While it is likely the justices will take into account the argument that the MSHA has been shielded in other states, the point is that each state is different. Only the law of West Virginia matters when it comes to determining the MSHA inspectors’ liability.

If you lost a loved one in a workplace accident, you should hire a West Virginia wrongful death attorney to help you get relief. You would argue that the employer acted unreasonably — such as by not following applicable state safety rules — which led to your loved one’s injury, which resulted in death. If you are successful in your suit, a jury will award you damages for pain and suffering, loss of support, medical bills, and more. It will never bring your loved one back, but at least it can help you move forward with your life.