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Johnson v. Pinnacle Mining Company, LLC

United States District Court, S.D. West Virginia, Beckley Division

May 14, 2018

RICKY A. JOHNSON, et al., Plaintiffs,



         The Court has reviewed Seneca Coal Resources, LLC's Motion to Dismiss (Document 36), Cliffs Natural Resources, Inc. 's Motion to Dismiss Plaintiffs' Amended Complaint (Document 38), Seneca North American Coal, LLC's Motion to Dismiss (Document 39), Pinnacle Mining Company, LLC's Motion to Dismiss (Document 42), and Cliffs Natural Resources, Inc. 's Joinder in Motions to Dismiss of Seneca Coal Resources, LLC and Seneca North American Coal, LLC (Document 44). The Court has also reviewed the Defendants' respective memoranda in support, the Plaintiffs' responses to each motion, the Defendants' replies, all attached exhibits, and the Plaintiffs' Amended Complaint (Document 33). For the reasons stated herein, the Court finds that the motions should be granted in part and denied in part.


         The Plaintiffs, Ricky A. Johnson and his wife, Melissa A. Johnson, brought this action against Defendants Pinnacle Mining Company, LLC (Pinnacle), Seneca Coal Resources, LLC (Seneca), Seneca North American Coal, LLC (SNAC), and Cliffs Natural Resources, Inc. (Cliffs). The Court previously granted a motion to dismiss an individual Defendant, Kenny Clay, and denied a motion to remand the matter to state court.

         The Plaintiffs allege that Mr. Johnson was employed by Pinnacle at the Pinnacle Mining Preparation Plant. SNAC, then known as Cliffs North American Coal, LLC, owned Pinnacle. Seneca is currently the owner of SNAC. Cliffs was the owner of Cliffs North American Coal, LLC, at the time of the events alleged in the amended complaint. One or more Defendants decided to replace a large pipeline in the prep plant. The pipeline was attached to a steel beam approximately ten feet above the floor. On June 21, 2015, a foreman instructed Mr. Johnson to use a cutting torch to sever the metal bands attaching the pipeline to the beam. The scissors lift was inoperable, and so the foreman instructed workers to create a work platform by placing a wooden pallet onto the lifting forks of a forklift. The foreman oversaw and directed Mr. Johnson in the task of cutting the metal bands to remove the pipeline. Mr. Johnson stood on the pallet and was lifted to the steel beam, but realized that if he cut the bands holding the pipeline from his position, the pipeline would fall on him. He therefore climbed onto the steel beam to cut the bands from above, rather than below, the pipeline.

         An unmarked plastic delivery line containing flammable alcohol was attached to the steel beam in the area where Mr. Johnson was cutting. Sparks or debris from the cutting torch hit the alcohol delivery line, causing an explosion and fire. The explosion startled Mr. Johnson, and he fell from the steel beam. He was not wearing a harness or fall protection. Mr. Johnson suffered a broken ankle and other injuries. He claims medical expenses totaling $144, 274.52, loss of income and loss of future earning potential, physical pain and disability, loss of enjoyment of life, mental anguish and emotional distress. Ms. Johnson asserts loss of consortium.

         Mr. Johnson asserts a claim of deliberate intent against all of the Defendants, alleging that they did not have a training and inspection program to ensure safety around hazardous materials. He alleges that the Defendants violated various regulations regarding safe access to workplaces, welding or cutting near combustible materials, safety when working with a danger of falling, correcting imminent dangers, and examining working areas for hazardous conditions. He further alleges that the Defendants knew of the dangerous conditions and willfully exposed him to danger, and attempted to cover up their violations after his accident.

         Mr. Johnson further asserts a claim against all of the Defendants for maintaining an unsafe workplace and negligence. He asserts that each Defendant "controlled, operated and managed the activities at [the Pinnacle plant] including the processing of coal, the design, construction, maintenance, and care of the plant, the premises and the machinery therein, the budget, and the safety and training for the personnel." (Am. Compl. at ¶ 30.) In doing so, Mr. Johnson alleges that the Defendants disregarded safety regulations and failed to maintain a reasonably safe place to work, resulting in his accident and injuries.

         Each Defendant has filed a motion to dismiss. The motions are fully briefed and ripe for ruling.


         A motion to dismiss filed pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) tests the legal sufficiency of a complaint. Francis v. Giacomelli, 588 F.3d 186, 192 (4th Cir. 2009); Giarratano v. Johnson, 521 F.3d 298, 302 (4th Cir. 2008). "[T]he legal sufficiency of a complaint is measured by whether it meets the standard stated in Rule 8 [of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure] (providing general rules of pleading) . . . and Rule 12(b)(6) (requiring that a complaint state a claim upon which relief can be granted.)" Id. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2) requires that a pleading must contain "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2).

         In reviewing a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim, the Court must "accept as true all of the factual allegations contained in the complaint." Erikson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93 (2007). The Court must also "draw[ ] all reasonable factual inferences from those facts in the plaintiffs favor." Edwards v. City of Goldsboro, 178 F.3d 231, 244 (4th Cir. 1999). However, statements of bare legal conclusions "are not entitled to the assumption of truth" and are insufficient to state a claim. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 679 (2009). Furthermore, the Court need not "accept as true unwarranted inferences, unreasonable conclusions, or arguments." E. Shore Mkts., v. J.D. Assocs. Ltd. P 'ship, 213 F.3d 175, 180 (4th Cir. 2000). "Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice... [because courts] 'are not bound to accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation.'" Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)).

         To survive a motion to dismiss, "a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, 'to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570.) In other words, this "plausibility standard requires a plaintiff to demonstrate more than 'a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.'" Francis v. Giacomelli, 588 F.3d 186, 193 (4th Cir. 2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570.) In the complaint, a plaintiff must "articulate facts, when accepted as true, that 'show' that the plaintiff has stated a claim entitling him to relief." Francis, 588 F.3d at 193 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557.) "Determining whether a complaint states [on its face] a plausible claim for relief [which ...

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