February 23, 2013 /24-7PressRelease/
-- West Virginia Supreme Court to rule on Massey mine fire liability
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In 2006, a West Virginia coal mine run by Massey Energy caught fire, killing two miners. Now, the widows of the two deceased miners are looking to hold the federal government accountable for what they say was a negligent failure to properly inspect the mine.
The West Virginia Supreme Court heard arguments in the coal mining accident case in October 2012. There, the widows alleged that the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration failed to take action to correct dangerous conditions at the Aracoma Alma No. 1 mine. Specifically, the widows alleged that the MSHA failed to notice that a misaligned conveyor belt had created a pile of flammable shavings that was several feet high. In addition, the widows claimed that a number of safety failings led to the miners' deaths, including faulty fire hoses, inadequate ventilation systems, broken communications equipment and a lack of functioning carbon monoxide detectors. The fire was caused by a build-up of combustible coal dust.
After the fire, Massey Energy and its subsidiary paid approximately $4.2 million to settle civil and criminal claims. However, the widows of the deceased miners say that the MSHA should also be held liable. They claim that federal inspectors got too friendly with mine operators, and as a result let many safety violations slide.
The MSHA acknowledged that its inspectors played a role in allowing the dangerous conditions to continue without being rectified, and that conflicts of interest may have been an issue. However, it claims that federal and state law protects the agency against civil liability.
Can the MSHA be held liable?
The widows are facing a complicated legal battle. Before going to the West Virginia Supreme Court, they brought their case to the federal Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. The federal court referred the case to the state supreme court for a determination on whether the MSHA can be held liable in a wrongful death lawsuit.
The widows sought to sue the MSHA under the Federal Tort Claims Act. Normally, the federal government enjoys immunity from civil lawsuits. However, the FTCA says that a federal worker acting within the scope of his or her employment can be held liable in a civil lawsuit if, under the law of the state where the accident occurred, a private person could also be held liable.
The federal court determined that West Virginia had no case law or statutes on the subject. As such, it sent the case to the West Virginia Supreme Court for a determination on the controlling state law.
It is unclear when the state supreme court will rule on the issue. However, the case highlights an important consideration that is relevant after any mine accident -- often, many different parties play a role in contributing to mine injuries or deaths. After an accident, it is important that all responsible parties are held accountable. If you or a loved one has been injured in a mine accident in West Virginia, an experienced personal injury attorney can help you seek justice.---
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