(CN) - The 9th Circuit questioned if it has the jurisdiction to hear the claims of three widows whose husbands died in a methane explosion at a Mexican coal mine.
Yolanda Gonzalez Diaz, Elizabeth Castillo Rabago and Tomasita Martinez Almaguer claim in a 2010 federal complaint that Grupo Mexico and its subsidiaries, Americas Mining Corp. and Southern Copper Corp., "failed and refused to take the necessary steps - steps which they were informed by the Mexican government as well as the miners themselves that they needed to take to prevent an imminent, fatal catastrophe of the type which transpired."
The Feb. 19, 2006, explosion at Pasta de Conchos mine in Coahuila, Mexico, trapped and killed 65 miners.
In March 2011, U.S. District Judge Roslyn Silver ruled that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights "cannot establish customary international law on its own because it is merely aspirational." Silver also said that the widows had failed to cite any cases asserting that there is Alien Tort Claims Act jurisdiction on the basis of workplace health and safety.
The parties appeared Friday before a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit in San Francisco.
Amanda Fisher, a lawyer for the widows, argued that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights does establish jurisdiction in this instance because "courts have held that it's a document that evidences universal principles of law."
Judge Carlos Bea asked Fisher if she believed that there was a law implying that "worldwide workers have a right to a safe place to work."
"What do you cite as the customary law of the world that there is an absolute right to a safe place to work?" Bea asked.
Fisher answered: "Grupo Mexico, one of the defendants in this case itself, has a policy listed on its website that says it will maintain a safe and healthy working environment."
Judge Paul Watford questioned Fisher's responses.
"But you don't even have universal standards for occupational safety across the globe," he said. "People look at it, I assume, totally differently in various places of the world, so how do they even know how to comply?"
Fisher replied that the widows are "not contending that every workplace accident should come to the United States federal courts" because "some workplace accidents are accidents."
Bea asked Fisher if there was "any limiting principle to your proposal that the federal courts be open to every alien that is hurt in any workplace accident where the accident may be caused in whole or part by unsafe work conditions?"
Fisher said the plaintiffs would have to prove that an employer failed to provide a reasonably safe place to work.
"By the standard that a company, a corporation, an individual, a government should not be able to have the knowledge that the mine or that the workplace is going to explode or that an accident is going to occur and then allow the workers to continue to go to that workplace," she said.
Judge William Sessions III also sat on the panel.
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