The two women who lost their husbands in a 2006 mine fire in Logan County have secured a major victory at the West Virginia Supreme Court.
The High Court issued a 5-0 opinion Tuesday that opens the door for Delorice Bragg and Freda Hatfield to continue their lawsuit against MSHA in connection with inspections at Aracoma Coal’s Alma No. 1 mine in the days before the fatal fire.
Miners Don Bragg and Elvis Hatfield became separated from 10 other crew members after a mine belt caught on fire. Their bodies were located two days later.
The widows’ lawsuit was originally thrown out by federal judge John Copenhaver who ruled federal mine inspectors could not be sued in West Virginia. The widows appealed to the U.S. Fourth Circuit in Richmond, which after hearing arguments sent the case to the West Virginia Supreme Court.
Tuesday’s opinion says a private inspector can be held liable under West Virginia law. Justice Robin Davis wrote that an inspector “owes a duty of care” to conduct full inspections.
The widows’ attorney Bruce Stanley says the case will now go back to the Richmond appeals court which he hopes will send it back to Judge Copenhaver.
Stanley says Hatfield and Bragg remain committed to the case.
“They’re true to that cause today, and given the opportunity if the trial court will allow us to go forward and find out what actually was going on in the mine inspection side of the Aracoma coal mine, it’s our intention to do just that,” Stanley told MetroNews.
MSHA did an internal review after the Jan. 19, 2006 tragedy and admitted it performed below expectations but its attorney argued before the state Supreme Court last Oct. MSHA was not operating like a private person at Aracoma.
Benjamin Kingsley said MSHA inspectors made mistakes but they weren’t there to create harm but protect someone from that harm. He said Massey Energy was ultimately responsible. He told the Court limitless liability is a dangerous road.
Stanley says coal miners are absolutely and totally dependent on federal inspectors to their jobs.
“It’s impossible for a coal miner, who is doing everything he can to do what’s expected of him on his shift duty, to also assume full responsibility for his safety for something two miles down the road,” Stanley said.
The 4th Circuit in Richmond is expected to take up the case quickly and send it back to Judge Copenhaver.