The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals has cleared the way for two miners’ widows to pursue a lawsuit against the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) for its admitted failure to inspect and enforce safety regulations at the Aracoma Coal Company’s Alma Mine #1 in that state.
Don Israel Bragg and Ellery Hatfield died in the mine on January 19, 2006, when an over-accumulation of combustible coal dust caused a deadly fire. Twelve miners were trapped inside the mine by smoke and fire. The main escape tunnel was filled with thick black smoke, forcing workers to find a different escape route. Bragg and Hatfield became separated from the group and were overcome by smoke.
According to this week's ruling attempts to extinguish the fire and contain smoke were thwarted by “numerous inadequate safety measures." These included:
- a fire hose rendered useless because “the threads on the fire hose coupling did not match the threads on the outlet”
- a lack of water because “the main water valve had been closed at the source, cutting off water to the area where the fire had started”
- inadequate ventilation controls and ventilation safety barriers that failed to warn the miners of the danger and allowed smoke to flow “in the wrong direction, deeper into the mine . . . flooding the emergency escapeways”
- the absence of functioning CO [carbon monoxide] detectors
- malfunctioning communications equipment that delayed warning the miners of the danger and delayed evacuation
- a personnel door that was unmarked
- breathing devices known as Self-Contained Self-Rescuers were rendered useless to miners trapped by the smoke because the miners had not been trained to operate the devices
The court found that a private party conducting inspections of a mine and mine operator for compliance with mine safety regulations is liable for the wrongful death of a miner resulting from the private party’s negligent inspection.
In a 5-0 ruling, the justices found that a private party conducting inspections of a mine and mine operator for compliance with mine safety regulations is liable for the wrongful death of a miner resulting from the private party’s negligent inspection.
The court ruling opens the door to a suit being pursued by widows Delorice Bragg and Freda Hatfield against the MSHA.
"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.
The MSHA has admitted that its inspectors failed to identify and cite numerous violations that were in existence at the mine, or to require the mine operator to take corrective actions.
“The agency determined that its own inspectors were at fault for failing to identify or rectify many obvious safety violations that contributed to the fire,” according to the ruling.
The MSHA concluded that the inspector who was assigned to inspect the mine did not determine whether the atmospheric monitoring system operator (who ignored the carbon monoxide alarms during the fire) was adequately familiar with his duties and responsibilities. , even though this determination was required of and understood by the inspector.”
Additionally, the MSHA investigation confirmed that with regard to ventilation controls, its inspectors, “demonstrated a lack of initiative to identify basic violations . . . even though the unmarked doors and missing stoppings were obvious and easily identifiable installed.”