CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The state Supreme Court on Tuesday paved the way for the widows of two miners killed in the 2006 Aracoma Mine fire to pursue their lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Labor over lax enforcement of federal mine safety standards at the operation.
In a 5-0 ruling, the justices said that a private party conducting mine inspections is liable for the wrongful death of a miner resulting from that private party's negligent inspection.
The decision allows Delorice Bragg and Freda Hatfield to pursue their suit against the labor department's Mine Safety and Health Administration, which has publicly conceded major inspection and enforcement lapses at the Aracoma operation.
"A private inspector who inspects a work premises for the purpose of furthering the safety of employees who work on said premises owes a duty of care to those employees to conduct inspections with ordinary skill, care, and diligence commensurate with that rendered by members of his or her profession," said the ruling, written by Justice Robin Davis.
Bruce Stanley, a lawyer for the Bragg and Hatfield families, said that decision "marks another step in the widows' continuing efforts to bring to justice all those responsible for the senseless disaster at Aracoma.
"The conscious decision of coal companies to ignore the most basic of mine safety laws and instead just run coal should not and cannot excuse government regulators from their independent responsibility to enforce those laws, regardless of the prevailing political climate or perceived economic pressures," Stanley said. "Hopefully, the threat of a private suit will serve as an incentive for them to do their jobs instead of turning their heads."
Continuation of the suit could reveal more information about serious MSHA problems related to the fire and, eventually, to the deaths of 29 miners at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine in an April 2010 explosion
During oral argument last October, Stanley told the justices that MSHA inspectors had become "too cuddly" with Massey officials and may have "looked the other way" when they found safety violations at Aracoma.
MSHA referred questions about the Supreme Court ruling to the U.S. Department of Justice, where officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The case stems from the Jan. 19, 2006, fire at Massey Energy's Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine in Logan County. A crew of workers trying to evacuate the underground tunnels ran into thick black smoke in their primary escape tunnel, and was forced to try find another way out. Two workers, Don Bragg and Ellery Hatfield, became separated from the group, got lost, and eventually succumbed to the smoke.