Back in October, this blog post discussed the issue of whether the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) could be sued for violations of state law. The case involved two widows of mine workers killed in a 2006 fire in the Aracoma Alma 1 mine who sought to hold the MSHA responsible, arguing that federal inspectors failed to act appropriately to prevent safety abuses. The widows’ case was appealed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which stated that the West Virginia Supreme Court should answer the question of whether state liability law could be applied to federal officials. Just recently, the West Virginia Supreme Court issued a decision that answered the question in the affirmative: federal MSHA inspectors can be held liable under state law.
On January 19, 2006, the fire broke out due to a high accumulation of combustible coal dust. Mine workers were unable to douse the flame and had trouble finding safety due to a combination of factors, including lack of access to the area’s main water valve; inadequate ventilation controls; lack of carbon monoxide detectors; poorly functioning communications equipment; unmarked doors; and breathing devices that the workers were never trained to use. While 10 of the 12 trapped workers did manage to escape, Delorice Bragg and Freda Hatfield’s husbands were casualties.
In the aftermath, the MSHA not only determined that Aracoma Coal Company committed numerous violations, but also that its own inspectors failed to discover the violations, and did not require Aracoma Coal Company to take corrective measures for the ones it did find. As a result, the MSHA found that the inspectors bore responsibility for failing to identify or correct many violations that contributed to the fire. In the months that followed, the widows brought lawsuits against Aracoma Coal Company and several of its employees. They also filed a lawsuit against the MSHA inspectors via the Federal Tort Claims Act, which states that federal employees are not immune from tort lawsuits if, under the same circumstances, a private person would be found liable under the state law where the violation occurred.
The MSHA moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing that a private person under the same circumstances would not be held liable under West Virginia law. Because the Fourth Circuit could not find any West Virginia case law that addressed it, the case was sent to the West Virginia Supreme Court. The justices considered several United States Supreme Court cases with facts that were very similar to the case at hand before applying precedent to the issue. They noted that those cases found that a duty was owed to a third party based on the foreseeability that harm would result if reasonable care were not exercised. When considering all the factors, the justices found — not surprisingly — that they weighed in favor of the idea that an inspector owes a duty of care to the employees meant to be protected by the inspection. The West Virginia Supreme Court therefore found that private safety inspectors could be held liable by the deceased employees’ estate for failing to use reasonable care during their inspections. With that question settled, the case moves back to the Fourth Circuit, which will make its decision based upon the new information provided by the West Virginia Supreme Court.
Since mine safety is such a vital issue in West Virginia, the outcome of this case is quite relevant. Anyone who has lost a loved one in a mining accident, and has hired a West Virginia wrongful death attorney to sue on their behalf, will know that in addition to the violating employers, private inspectors — and hopefully federal as well — can be held liable.