United States may be liable for inadequate safety inspections of mines

Hard-working West Virginia miners face practical risks every day. Mine safety regulations are meant to balance the hazards of coal extraction, and when such regulations are not followed by a mining company, the company may be liable for injuries or deaths that result from a mining accident.

However, what if other parties are also responsible for a mining accident? For example, what if the United States itself was also liable? The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals case of Bragg v. U.S. discusses such a situation.

Inadequate safety measures. . . and inspections

This tragic event occurred when an over-accumulation of combustible coal dust caused a deadly fire in a mine in Logan County, West Virginia. Twelve miners were trapped inside the mine by smoke and fire. Attempts to extinguish the fire and contain the smoke were inhibited by numerous inadequate safety measures, including a fire hose rendered useless because the threads on the coupling did not match the threads on the outlet, and inadequate ventilation controls, among other issues. Ultimately, two miners died.

In addition to fault attributed to the owners of the mine, the Mine Safety & Health Administration investigation uncovered numerous inadequacies in its own inspections. The widows of the victims brought suit against the United States under the Federal Tort Claims Act.

Under the FTCA, the United States can be liable for a negligent or wrongful act or omission of any employee of the government where the United States, if it were a private person, would be liable in accordance with the law of the place where the act or omission occurred. The United States moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing that a private party inspecting the mines would not be held liable under West Virginia law. The federal court agreed, dismissing the widows' claim before they even had their day in court. The widows of the victims appealed.

As part of the appeal, the question of whether a private individual would have been liable under state law was taken before the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia. If a private person could be liable, then so could the United States, and the federal court's dismissal would be erroneous, giving the widows an opportunity to move forward with their case.

A safety inspector's duty of care

The West Virginia court stated that several factors, including the likelihood of injury, weighed in favor of finding that a safety inspector owed a duty of care to the employees whose safety the inspection was intended to secure. That is to say that it is foreseeable that injuries are likely to come to such employees if a safety inspection is negligently performed. The burden upon the inspector is to perform his or her duties with the ordinary skill, care and diligence commensurate with that rendered by members of his or her profession.

In light of this helpful state law guidance, it was now clear that the federal court's dismissal of the widows' lawsuit was erroneous and that their case against the United States could proceed.

Holding all those at fault accountable

If you or a loved one has been seriously injured or killed in a coal mine accident, it is crucial that you are represented by a personal injury attorney who has experience working with forensic mine safety experts and who will work to determine which safety standards and regulations were violated. Seek an attorney who can help you ensure that all responsible parties are held accountable for their negligent actions.