Supreme Court Asks Lower Court to Reconsider Decision on Safety Inspectors' Liability

The U.S. Supreme Court has voided an appeals court ruling that said the federal government can be held liable for an Arizona copper mine accident that, according to a lawsuit filed by two injured workers, was brought about by the negligence of MSHA inspectors.

Justice Stephen Breyer, who wrote the high court's Nov. 8 opinion in United States vs. Olson et al., said the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was reading into the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) "something that is not there" when the appeals court concluded that the federal government can be sued for negligence if a state or municipal entity in a similar situation would be held liable under the laws where the incident occurred.

The appeals court extended this logic to conclude that Arizona law would make state or municipal entities liable in a situation similar to the one alleged in the lawsuit, and consequently, that the federal government was liable for the negligence of its inspectors.

The high court disagreed.

Breyer points out that FTCA allows citizens to take legal action against the United States government only in situations in which the government, if a "'private person,'" would be liable under the laws of the place where the "'act or omission occurred.'"

"Our cases have consistently adhered to this 'private person standard," Breyers wrote. " … Indeed, we have found nothing in [FTCA's] context, history or objectives or in the opinions of this court suggesting a waiver of sovereign immunity solely upon that basis."

Arizona mine workers Joseph Olson and Javier Vargas, according to court documents, were permanently disabled in 2000 when a 9-ton slab of earth fell from the ceiling of the Mission Underground Mine. The lawsuit filed by Vargas, Olson and Olson's wife, Monica, against the federal government contended that MSHA was liable for their injuries due to the agency's failure to respond to prior complaints regarding safety hazards at the mine.

The U.S. District Court of Arizona ruled in favor of the federal government. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco reversed the ruling in March 2004.

The question that was posed to the Supreme Court was "whether the liability of the United States under the Federal Tort Claims Act with respect to safety inspections is the same as that of private individuals under like circumstances, or, as the 9th Circuit held, the same as that of state and municipal entities under like circumstances."

The Supreme Court, in its Nov. 8 opinion, remanded the case to the 9th Circuit for "proceedings consistent with this opinion."

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