RICHMOND, Va. - A federal appeals court on Tuesday asked the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals to determine whether claims by miners against private parties for negligent safety inspections should be dismissed for failure to state a claim.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, in an 11-page unpublished order, certified the following question to the state's high court:
"Whether 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 case at issue involves the widows of two Aracoma miners who are suing the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.
The two miners, Ellery Hatfield and Don Bragg, died in 2006 as a result of a fire in the Aracoma Alma Mine No. 1 in Logan County.
The accident occurred when a conveyor belt caught fire.
The belt ignited on the morning of Jan. 19, 2006, pouring smoke through the gaps in the wall and into the fresh air passageway that the miners were supposed to use for their escape, obscuring their vision and ultimately killing Hatfield and Bragg.
The two men died of carbon monoxide poisoning after being separated from the 10 other members of their crew.
In their April 2010 suit under the Federal Tort Claims Act, Hatfield and Bragg's widows alleged that MSHA's negligence in its safety inspections of the Aracoma mine contributed to the fire that resulted in their husbands' deaths.
The FTCA waives the sovereign immunity of the United States for torts committed by federal employees acting within the scope of their employment "under circumstances where the United States, if a private person, would be liable to the claimant in accordance with the law of the place where the act or omission occurred."
The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia dismissed the widows' complaint on the basis that West Virginia law would not hold a private analogue to the MSHA inspectors liable for negligence resulting in the wrongful death of the miners.
On appeal to the Fourth Circuit, the widows contend that the district court erred in its analysis of both West Virginia's general principles of negligence and its special relationship theory.
In its unsigned order, the Fourth Circuit said "several factors" justify certification to the state Supreme Court.
"We find no clear controlling West Virginia precedent to guide our decision. At this stage of the litigation, there are no disputed fact issues, and the question presented is a pure question of state law, which has not been squarely addressed by the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals," the court wrote. "In addition, we recognize the importance of allowing the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals to decide questions of state law and policy with such far-reaching impact.
"The question of whether a private party is liable to miners for their negligent safety inspection of a mine and mine operator appears to be a matter of exceptional importance for West Virginia," the Fourth Circuit added, noting its uncertainty.