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WV Supreme Court issues decision in Aracoma widows suit

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The West Virginia Supreme Court recently issued a decision in a case filed by two widows following the deaths of two miners in the Aracoma mine fire, allowing the widows to proceed with their suit against the government.

The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals certified the question to West Virginia's highest court asking "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 negligence and wrongful death suit was filed in April 28, 2010, by Delorice Bragg on behalf of her deceased husband, Don Israel Bragg, and Freda Hatfield on behalf of the estate of Ellery Hatfield against the United States.

According to court documents, Aracoma Coal and several supervisors at the mine pleaded guilty to federal charges of criminal negligence.

The company also settled separate allegations brought against it by the same two widows in this suit, court documents state. 

In their federal lawsuit, Bragg and Hatfield asserted the Mine Safety and Health Administration was negligent in its safety inspection of the Aracoma Coal Co.'s Alma Mine. That negligence, they allege, resulted in the death of the two mine roof bolters.  

According to the 4th Circuit's July 17 unpublished per curiam opinion, the federal court dismissed the suit because of the determination that West Virginia law would not hold a private analogue to the MSHA inspectors liable for negligence.    

In their Feb. 5 opinion, justices concluded 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."

"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," Justice Robin Davis wrote in the decision.

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