A federal appeals court has partially revived a lawsuit a Clarksdale man filed against the federal government following a mine accident that left the man quadriplegic.
On March 22, a three-judge panel from the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the case, brought by Ronald C. Buckler, could proceed on his claim that a mine inspector failed to carry out a non-discretionary and mandatory duty to review training records.
The court ruled that while government employees such as the inspector may be protected from suits by the discretion they are given while performing their jobs, they are not protected from failing to perform their duties at all.
In 2016, Buckler sued the U.S. government under the Federal Tort Claims Act in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri. He claimed his injuries were caused in part by a federal mine inspector’s inadequate inspection of his workplace, the Uehlin Quarry of Amazonia.
According to the 8th Circuit opinion, written by Judge Michael J. Melloy, Buckler was injured while he used an impact-based rock crusher at a surface-gravel mine. The crusher contained a rotating element to throw rocks against a steel anvil, while a vibrating loading chute moved the rocks toward the rotator.
When the chute jammed, workers turned off the vibrating element of the equipment but not the rotator. Buckler attempted to clear the chute by pushing the rocks with an eight-foot steel bar. He was injured when the bar came into contact with the rotator and crushed his upper spine.
Senior Judge Dean Whipple dismissed the case in May 2017. He ruled that he lacked jurisdiction because the plaintiff could not show there was a Missouri law that would impose liability on a private person in similar circumstances, which is required to bring a claim under the FTCA.
He also ruled that Buckler’s claim under the FTCA was barred by the discretionary-function exception, which blocks suits against the government for harm caused by a government employee’s actions if they are subject to discretion “grounded in social, economic and political policy.”
The panel disagreed on the first point, ruling that an analogous state-law duty exists. They also agreed that all but one of Buckler’s claims were barred by the exception — his claim about training records at the site.
On appeal, Buckler argued that his case presents a factual question that should be resolved through a full trial on the merits.
As part of that argument, he said an inspector in 2011 falsified records and failed entirely to perform any review of worker-training documentation. He also argued that those acts fall outside of any discretion an inspector may have.
Melloy said the 8th Circuit previously has ruled that an employee may lack discretion to entirely forgo an inspection, in the 1999 case Appley Brothers. v. United States.
The court wrestled with the issue, with Melloy saying that “parsing a government employee’s duties this thinly is confusing to say the least.”
On one hand, he said the FTCA says that the discretionary-function exception applies whether or not an employee has abused their discretion.
“Falsifying records, however, would seem to be more than a mere abuse of discretion,” he said. “Based upon Appley Brothers, therefore, we believe it is permissible, when analyzing the discretionary-function exception, to recognize that some duties are mandatory in that they must be performed in some fashion, even if the manner in which they are performed involves protected discretion.”
The evidence cited by Buckler was sufficient “to create a question as to whether the inspector performed any review of training records,” Melloy said.
A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Missouri, which is representing the government, declined to comment on the ruling.
Buckler is represented by Benjamin S. Creedy of Murphy, Taylor, Siemens & Elliott in St. Joseph. He did not respond to a message seeking comment.
The case is Buckler v. United States of America, 17-2567.