Massey's Aracoma Coal Co. subsidiary and five mine foremen pleaded guilty to criminal charges stemming from the fire, but then-U.S. Attorney Chuck Miller did not seek to prosecute Massey or Massey officers.
While MSHA cited a variety of serious safety violations that led to the deaths, an agency "internal review" report also documented major lapses in MSHA's inspection of the mine and enforcement of safety standards intended to protect miners.
Citing MSHA's failures, the Bragg and Hatfield families sued the agency under the Federal Tort Claims Act, alleging federal officials were partly responsible for the deaths.
In February 2011, U.S. District Judge John T. Copenhaver threw out the case, concluding that it wasn't allowed because under West Virginia law a private person in circumstances similar to MSHA's would not have been liable. Under the FTCA, the federal government is liable in the same manner, and to the same extent, as private individuals would be in similar situations.
The Bragg and Hatfield families appealed, and the 4th Circuit asked the state Supreme Court to decide if a private party conducting mine inspections is liable for the wrongful death of a miner that results from that private party's negligent inspection.
In its ruling, the 4th Circuit quoted extensively from government reports that documented MSHA's failings at Aracoma, including not identifying serious violations and requiring them to be fixed. The 4th Circuit also noted that MSHA's own internal review raised questions about "conflicts of interest" among MSHA officials charged with enforcing safety requirements at Massey operations.
The three-judge panel that heard the case consisted of Judges G. Steven Agee, Andrew M. Davis, and James A. Wynn Jr. Agee was appointed by President George W. Bush. Davis and Wynn were appointed by President Obama.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.