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U.S. Not Liable for Deaths in Hazardous W.Va. Mine

(CN) - A West Virginia federal judge dismissed a wrongful death complaint against federal safety officials filed by two widows of deceased coal miners.

Five years ago, Don Israel Bragg and Ellery Hatfield were killed in a fire at the Aracoma Coal Co.'s Alma Mine in Stollings, W.Va.

Their wives, Delorice Bragg and Freda Hatfield, sued the United States, claiming that the Mine Safety and Health Administration did not uphold its duties to Alma miners. The District Court in Charleston, W.Va., ruled Tuesday, however, that Alma alone, not MSHA, is the party to be held accountable for the miners' deaths.

The agency had published a 233-page report in 2007 on its investigation of the fire and found that the Logan County mine was not adequately equipped and employees were inadequately trained for firefighting and evacuation procedures, in violation of the federal mining laws.

MSHA also found that some of its own previous inspections of the Alma Mine failed to recognize safety violations and that some inspectors failed to follow up on citations.

The United States moved to dismiss the case on June 25, 2010, asserting that the plaintiffs' claims do not waive the sovereign immunity of the United States under the Federal Tort Claims Act.

While the act waives sovereign immunity for the government in cases involving federal employees' negligence, U.S. District Judge John Copenhaver found that the widows had failed to prove that the law imposed negligence liability on MSHA inspectors and the United States by association.

Copenhaver's ruling also states that MSHA did not have a legal duty based voluntary undertaking of the mine's problems under the Good Samaritan provisions of Restatement (Second) of Torts.

West Virginia has not adopted these provisions, and no precedents in West Virginia law have qualified MSHA's role as voluntary undertaking.

The court also ruled out negligence on general negligence principles.

Copenhaver found that imposing legal duty on MSHA "would directly conflict with Congress' decision to place the primary responsibility for mine safety on mine operators."

The court further denied the plaintiffs' claim that there existed a "special relationship" between MSHA and the decedent miners, which would be a cause for negligence.

According to West Virginia's precedents, a duty based on special relationship only exists when the two parties have a contract with one another, and the loss in question is purely economic.

The court noted the discretionary function exception, which states the United States is not liable for "any claim ... based upon the exercise or performance or the failure to exercise or perform a discretionary function or duty on the part of a federal agency or an employee of the Government, whether or not the discretion involved be abused."

The burden for proving exception is on the plaintiffs, however, and the plaintiffs did not rise to the challenge, Copenhaver wrote.

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