Appeals court upholds MSHA fines over fatal accident at coal mine

A three-judge panel at the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals on Oct. 29 rejected an appeal by coal producer Rex Coal of fines imposed by a the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission related to a fatal accident.

Rhett Mosley, a truck driver at Rex Coal’s mine, was killed after he lost control of his truck while descending a hill. He was descending the hill in neutral gear, apparently by accident, and the truck’s brakes were in such poor condition that they could not stop the truck, the court noted. A U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) investigator issued three citations to Rex Coal for failure to maintain full control over the truck, failure to equip the truck with adequate brakes, and failure to perform an effective preshift inspection of the truck.

After a hearing, an administrative law judge (ALJ) upheld the three citations and assessed civil penalties totaling $157,500. The federal commission declined to review that decision. Rex Coal then petitioned for review in federal court. Rex Coal blames the accident on Mosley’s driving the truck in neutral, and Rex Coal also claims it was diligent in its preshift inspection of the brakes. “These arguments, however, do not warrant relief,” said the court.

“We are troubled that the negligence in each of the three violations boils down to the same thing: inadequate brakes,” said the appeals courts opinion. “Negligence in the failure to control the truck was due to inadequate brakes, not driving the truck in neutral. Negligence in the second violation was specifically due to inadequate brakes. And negligence in failing to inspect was based not on any specifically required brake test but, again, on the mere fact that the brakes were indeed inadequate, such that the inspection must have not been sufficient. While any of these negligence conclusions is eminently reasonable, it does appear to be ‘piling on’ for MSHA to impose three separate fines when precisely the same negligence happens to result in violations of three separate regulations. Rex Coal does not argue that this triple-counting is not permissible, and it may well be that it is permissible. MSHA should use caution, however, in the exercise of its discretion in issuing multiplicitous citations for the identical negligence.”

About Barry Cassell 20414 Articles
Barry Cassell is Chief Analyst for GenerationHub covering coal and emission controls issues, projects and policy. He has covered the coal and power generation industry for more than 24 years, beginning in November 2011 at GenerationHub and prior to that as editor of SNL Energy’s Coal Report. He was formerly with Coal Outlook for 15 years as the publication’s editor and contributing writer, and prior to that he was editor of Coal & Synfuels Technology and associate editor of The Energy Report. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.