CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A federal appeals court has asked West Virginia's Supreme Court to decide a key issue in a case in which widows of the 2006 Aracoma Mine fire are suing the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.
On Tuesday, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals asked state justices to determine if such lawsuits are generally allowed under West Virginia law.
In an unsigned, 11-page order, the 4th Circuit asked the state court to decide a key legal issue by answering a "certified question," or a formal request from one court to another.
"We find no clear controlling West Virginia precedent to guide our decision," the 4th Circuit said. "The question presented is a pure question of state law, which has not been squarely addressed by the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals."
If the suit is eventually allowed to move forward, the legal investigation involved could also reveal more information about serious MSHA problems related to the deaths of 29 miners at Massey's Upper Big Branch Mine in an explosion four years after the Aracoma fire.
"The widows are very grateful to have the opportunity to argue such an important public policy question to the West Virginia Supreme Court," said Bruce Stanley, a lawyer for the families of miners Don Bragg and Ellery Hatfield.
"Coal miners are heavily dependent upon MSHA doing its job, and when it flat out ignores its duty to those miners, MSHA ought to be held accountable for the resulting damages just the same as any private citizen under similar circumstances would be," Stanley said.
During the Jan. 19, 2006, fire, a crew of workers ran into thick, black smoke in their primary escape tunnel, and had to try to find another way out of the mine. Two workers, Bragg and Hatfield, became separated from the group, got lost, and eventually succumbed to the smoke.