Although the 2006 Aracoma Mine disaster was "undeniably tragic," a U.S. District Court judge ruled that the widows' cannot sue the federal government for the Mine Safety and Health Administration's negligent inspections where the government inspectors failed to find obvious violations that led to the fatal fire that killed two miners.
Judge John Copenhaver Jr. ruled Feb. 7 that the Federal Tort Claims Act lawsuit against the Mine Safety and Health Administration had to be dismissed because the widows could not establish liability "under ordinary state-law principles." Copenhaver said the widows, Delorice Bragg and Freda Hatfield were unable to prove that West Virginia law would impose negligence liability on a "private individual under like circumstances" as the MSHA inspectors who inspected the mine without citing violations that led to the fatal fire.
The mine fire occurred Jan. 19, 2006 at Massey Energy's Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine in West Virginia. During the investigation, it was determined that in part, federal inspectors overlooked missing ventilation controls, inoperable fire-fighting equipment, and hundreds of violations. An MSHA internal investigation determined that there was inadequate inspections at the mine, and inspectors allowed significant hazards to exist in the mine.
In a statement sent to Mine Safety and Health News, the widows' attorney, Bruce Stanley, said "The widows have done just about all that is within their power to shed light upon and hold accountable those responsible for the mindless greed and dereliction of duty that got their husbands killed. We'll have to assess whether there is the prospect of an appeal, but generally, the legal deck is stacked in favor of the government when it comes to these types of claims."
Stanley went on to explain that the widows were relying on the Olsen case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, which represented a sea change in injured victims being able to hold the government accountable. "Obviously the district court does not agree," Stanley said.
In Olsen, a lawsuit was filed against MSHA under the Federal Tort Claims Act by two miners who were seriously injured in a mine accident. Like the Aracoma case, the miners alleged that MSHA was negligent in its inspection of the mine where they worked and that inspectors ignored complaints of hazardous conditions. The Supreme Court ruled that the FTCA waives the federal government's immunity "under circumstances ... if a private person, would be liable." The government conceded in the Olsen case that there are private persons who conduct safety inspections.
Stanley said that under Copenhaver's ruling, "there is no liability to the families of the dead miners in Aracoma, where the government has basically flat out admitted it did not do its job. There is little likelihood that they will ever be called to account."
"Indeed, in our case the court apparently has ruled that under West Virginia law, there is not even a special relationship between coal miner and inspector. So while building contractors can collect money damages from architects for project overruns, dead miners' families cannot collect damages for MSHA's decision not to do its job," Stanley said.
A complete story on the ruling will be in the next issue of Mine Safety and Health News.