Safety and OSHA News

Did mining company know rock burst and injuries were likely to occur?

Four injured workers sued this company, claiming it knew they were likely to be injured and that workers’ comp shouldn’t be their exclusive remedy. How did a court rule? 

On Nov. 16, 2011, a rock burst occurred in the 5900 level of the Lucky Friday Mine in Idaho. The section of the mine was closed. The owner, Hecla Mining Co., hired an expert to evaluate the situation and help design a rehabilitation plan. The expert stated the section of the mine could be rehabilitated and developed a plan to do so safely. The Mine Safety and Health Administration signed off on the plan.

The rehabilitation plan consisted of two phases. After the first phase was completed, MSHA permitted Hecla to resume normal mining while waiting for the arrival of steel liners which would be installed in the second phase. Installation of the liners began on Dec. 14, 2011.

At about 7:40 p.m. on Dec. 14, 2011, a rock burst occurred in the 5900 pillar injuring several workers who were installing the liners.

Four of the injured workers sued Hecla, alleging “knowing, intentional, willful and wanton injury … and intentional infliction of emotional distress.”

The four workers alleged Hecla committed an act of “willful or unprovoked physical aggression” by assigning them to work in an area that was extremely dangerous without informing them about the conditions.

In effect, they claimed because of the level of negligence by Hecla, they should be able to sue the employer as an exception to the Idaho Workers’ Compensation Act (IWCA).

Hecla asked that the lawsuit be thrown out, arguing that workers’ comp was the employees’ exclusive remedy. A district court granted Hecla summary judgment, throwing out the lawsuit. The workers appealed.

Did company know workers would be injured?

There is an exception to the exclusive remedy for workers under the IWCA, “where the injury or death is proximately caused by the willful or unprovoked physical aggression of the employer.”

In this case, the workers claimed Hecla acted with general intent to injure employees by sending them into the damaged section of the mine.

The Idaho Supreme Court pointed out that to prove this, the workers had to show “the employer actually knew or consciously disregarded knowledge that employee injury would result from the employer’s action.”

The workers pointed to statements in the hired expert’s report as proof Hecla knew employees would be injured there.

The report stated a pillar in the section was “very near the unconfined compressive strength of the pillar, and any further loss of confinement could lead to pillar failure.”

But the court noted that the overall conclusion of the report was that the pillar could be rehabilitated. When the statements from the report used by the workers to try to prove their case were taken in context, the court found there was no evidence Hecla knew workers sent into repair the pillar would be injured.

The Idaho Supreme Court noted Hecla:

  • hired an expert consultant to develop a rehabilitation plan
  • implemented a plan to address the risk, and
  • obtained authorization from MSHA.

Idaho’s highest court did note that the plan was “implemented negligently, perhaps even grossly so.” The plan had called for use of six stress gauges. Hecla only installed three, and one of them didn’t work.

Despite that, the court found “there is simply no evidence that Hecla had actual knowledge a rock burst would occur or that Appellants would be injured.”

Therefore, the Idaho Supreme Court found the district court ruled properly when it threw out the workers’ lawsuit against Hecla. Workers’ comp would remain the employees’ exclusive remedy in this case.

(Barrett v. Hecla Mining Company, Supreme Court of Idaho, No. 43639, 11/18/16)

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