Fourth Circuit Denies Review of Administrative Order & Civil Penalties Following a Fatal Coal Mine Accident

By Kelsey Hyde

On November 10, 2016, the Fourth Circuit published an opinion in the case of Consol Buchanan Mining Company v. Secretary of Labor.  The Fourth Circuit denied Consol’s petition for review of an order by the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission, finding the appellant mining company negligent and subject to penalties for violations of mining regulations. The Fourth Circuit found the administrative law judge did not err in finding that Consol had fair notice of the dangerous conditions, which ultimately led to the avoidable death of a miner, and that Consol’s actions constituted “unwarrantable failure” to comply with the applicable mine-safety regulations.

Appellant’s Fatal Mine Accident & Subsequent Proceedings

The fatal accident that ultimately led to this action occurred on January 11, 2012, in a Virginia coal mine operated by appellant, Consol Buchanan Mining Co. (“Consol”). Consol’s mine had a six-inch main line that supplied water for various uses, including firefighting and suppressing coal dust. The line was constructed with several valves to allow water flow for such uses. At one point, the water line was above the floor of the mine, but had since been buried by the accumulation of dust and debris over several years. Because the line runs adjacent to the equipment trackways, valves were regularly struck by machinery traveling on the tracks, and Consol was aware that these valves were being hit and damaged by moving equipment. Consol had also removed certain leverage bars provided by the manufacturer to open and close the valves.

On the day of the accident, Section Foreman Gregory Addington (“Addington”) had been assigned to help oversee two other miners move a shuttle car across the mine. During this process, the crew struck a fire valve extending out from the main waterline which split the valve and sent a fountain of water shooting out into the mine. Ultimately, they were unable to fully close the valve because of the excessive debris that had accumulated, and because the proper leverage bar was unavailable. Moreover, the damage to the fire valve made it unable to bear the necessary level of water pressure. The valve was suddenly ejected, fatally striking one of the miners.

Following the accident, the Mine Safety & Health Administration (“MSHA”) conducted an investigation and eventually concluded the accident had resulted from the failed closure of the inoperable valve. MSHA then petitioned the Federal Mine Safety & Health Review Commission (“Commission”) to assess civil penalties against Consol for violating two mine safety regulations: (1) failing to remove unsafe mining machinery or equipment from service, based on reusing the damaged fire valve, in violation of 30 C.F.R. § 75.1725(a); and (2) failing to ensure all firefighting equipment was maintained in a usable and operative condition, based on making the leverage bars unavailable and unable to ensure valves could be properly closed, in violation of 30 C.F.R. § 75.1100-3. After an evidentiary hearing, an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) from MSHA found Consol in violation based on their “unwarrantable failure” to comply with the respective regulations, and imposed a civil penalty of $70,000 per violation. After an unsuccessful petition for discretionary review by the agency, the ALJ’s decision was made final and Consol petitioned the Fourth Circuit for review.

Challenges & Standards of Review on Appeal

Through this appeal, Consol challenged the MHSA order on the following three grounds: (1) Consol lacked fair notice that their acts were in violation because MSHA had not previously cited them for such infractions; (2) Addington, the foreman in the accident, was not acting as Consol’s agent and therefore negligence could not be imputed ; and (3) the ALJ erred in finding Consol demonstrated heightened negligence through their failure to comply with the mining regulations.

The Fourth Circuit reviewed the ALJ’s factual findings as they relate to these challenges under the “substantial evidence” standard, which involves assessing “relevant evidence such that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support the conclusion.” Almy v. Sebelius, 679 F.3d 297, 301 (4th Cir. 2012). For any legal conclusions, the Fourth Circuit operated under the de novo standard, offering deference to the agency’s interpretations of ambiguities, when necessary. After a full review of the record as a whole, the court proceeded with each of Consol’s three separate challenges under these standards of review.

Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit Adopts the “Reasonably Prudent Miner” Test

The court disagreed with Consol’s contention that they were not given adequate notice that their conduct would constitute a violation, and were thus deprived of due process of law when penalized for the violations. Although the court recognized parties subject to administrative sanctions are so entitled to adequate notice of what would constitute proscribed conduct, whether a party lacks such adequate notice hinges on a fact-specific analysis. To make this determination in the specific context of mining and MSHA regulations, the Fourth Circuit chose to adopt the “reasonably prudent miner” test, that both the agency and other Circuit courts have employed in related cases. The test considers “whether a reasonably prudent person familiar with the mining industry and the protective purposes of the standard would have recognized the specific prohibition or requirement of the standard.” DQ Fire & Explosion Consultants, Inc., 36 FMSHRC 3083, 3087 (Dec. 2014).  The court found this rule more conducive with Congress’s intent to place the responsibility of maintaining safety on the mine operators, as well as the practical limitations of administrative agencies enforcement power if a rule of explicit notice for all potential violations were required. Applying this objective standard to the present case, based on all evidence in the record, the court found that a reasonably prudent miner would indeed recognize that actions and ongoing conditions at Consol’s mine were in violation of MSHA regulations, certainly placing miners at risk, and, thus, Consol had fair notice that their actions could result in sanctions.

Foreman Addington was an agent of the Mine Operator

            The court also disagreed with Consol’s assertion that Addington, the foreman involved in moving the shuttle car that eventually caused the accident, was not an agent of Consol. The court instead found the Addington’s negligence was properly considered in assessing Consol’s negligence. Here, the court looked to the Mine Act, which allows a mine operator to be liable for the negligence of anyone who qualifies as an “agent”, defined as any person “charged with responsibility for the operation of all or part of a coal or other mine or the supervision of the minders in a coal or other mine.” 30 U.S.C. § 802(e). Furthermore, applications of this definition by the agency itself, as well as courts of other Circuits, have yielded a broad definition of agency, not limited to concepts of liability at common law, but instead focused on whether the miner exercised managerial or supervisory responsibilities at the time of his negligent conduct. Here, the court found the ALJ properly determined Addington was serving as a supervisor of the other miners, and therefore Consol’s “agent.” The court did consider the record as a whole, but found the testimony of other miners, referring to Addington as “the boss” and indicating they would have certainly followed his instructions at the time of this valve accident, as most dispositive of his supervisor role at the time of this negligent conduct that led to the accident. As such, the court held that there was indeed substantial evidence to support the ALJ’s conclusion that Addington was Consol’s agent. 

The ALJ Did Not Err in Finding Appellant’s Violations Were “Unwarrantable Failure” to Comply with MSHA Regulations

            Consol’s final challenge, disputing the ALJ’s finding of aggravated negligence based on their “unwarranted failure” to comply with mining regulations, was similarly denied by the Fourth Circuit. An unwarranted failure to comply with such regulations involves conduct otherwise inexcusable or not justifiable, such that the aggravating conduct amounted to more than ordinary negligence. In the initial order, the ALJ considered a variety of “aggravating factors” to determine whether the operator’s conduct was not justifiable, including: the length of time of violative condition, a high degree of danger, the obviousness of the violation, any efforts to abate violative condition, notice of violation, or notice of necessity for further efforts to reach compliance. Again, reviewing the record as a whole under the “substantial evidence” standard, the court found substantial support for the findings regarding Consol’s display of these aggravating factors, including: the extended period of time over which the violations persisted, the obviousness of the open and broken valve, the significant danger these conditions posed to miners, Consol’s knowledge of frequent instances of damage to the valves, and even a prior incident of injury involving the damaged valves. Accordingly, the court found no error in the ALJ’s finding that Consol demonstrated an aggravated lack of due care, more than ordinary negligence, in failing to remedy these dangerous conditions of which they were on notice.

Fourth Circuit Denies Petition for Review

            Upon finding no error in the ALJ’s conclusions that appellant Consol had fair notice of dangerous conditions, and that the fatal accident in question occurred based on Consol’s unwarrantable failure to comply with the applicable regulations, the Fourth Circuit denied Consol’s petition for review of the agency’s order and imposition of civil penalties.

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