Tort liability of private inspectors for negligent inspection of mine

In Bragg v. U.S., the West Virginia Supreme Court issued an opinion holding that a private inspector conducting a mine safety inspection is liable under state law for the wrongful death of a miner arising as a result of the inspector's negligent inspection.

Background

In 2006, a mine fire started at a Logan County, West Virginia, coal mine due to an excessive accumulation of combustible coal dust. The fire and smoke trapped 12 coal miners inside. Ten of the trapped miners later managed to escape the mine, but two died from carbon monoxide intoxication. Investigators subsequently determined that numerous safety violations by the mine owner contributed to the cause and severity of the fire.

The mine owner and several of its supervisors later entered guilty pleas to federal charges of criminal negligence. In 2008, the plaintiffs, widows of the two miners who died, settled tort claims brought against the mine owner.

Procedural history

The plaintiffs brought separate claims against the United States in federal district court under the Federal Tort Claims Act, claiming that federal mine inspectors negligently executed inspection duties in allowing the unsafe conditions later cited by the investigators and failed to exercise reasonable care to prevent harm to the plaintiffs. Under the Federal Tort Claims Act, the federal mine inspectors are immune from negligence lawsuits unless a private inspection firm under the same circumstances could be found liable under state law.

The United States filed a motion to dismiss the case on the ground that a private party inspecting mines under similar circumstances would not be held liable under state law in West Virginia. The District Court agreed and dismissed the complaint.

The plaintiffs filed an appeal in the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Fourth Circuit court could not find any clear, authoritative state court decision on point. Under procedures authorized under federal law, the Fourth Circuit certified the question to the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia, requesting it to render an opinion on the question.

The opinion of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals

The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals decided that a private party conducting safety inspections to determine whether a mine and the mine operator are in compliance with mine safety regulations is liable for the wrongful death of a miner resulting from the inspector's negligence in performing the inspection. In negligence cases, said the state court, the wrongdoer's liability does not arise from the breach of a contractual relationship, but from the breach of a duty that causes an injury to others. The primary basis for finding the existence of a duty to use care under West Virginia law is foreseeability that harm may result if it is not exercised.

Private safety inspectors performing inspections at workplaces owe a duty of care to the employees to use "ordinary skill, care, and diligence" that others in his or her profession would use in conducting the inspections, the court wrote. The safety inspector must be knowledgeable on laws governing the industry and be able to ascertain and report any violations. An inspector is able to foresee harm that is likely to occur "if unlawful conditions are not reasonably identified and appropriate action taken to remedy the same," the court said.

Individuals who have sustained injuries as a result of the negligent acts or other wrongful conduct of another are urged to seek the advice of an experienced personal injury attorney in order to protect their legal rights.

Frequently Asked Questions

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