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RALEIGH, N.C.-Survivors and families of deceased victims of a 1991 fire at a chicken processing plant can proceed with their suit charging the North Carolina Department of Labor with negligence, the state court of appeals ruled earlier this month.

The Sept. 3, 1991, fire killed 25 workers and injured more than 50 others at the Imperial Food Products processing plant in Hamlet, N.C. Investigations after the fire revealed that the plant never was inspected in its 11 years of operation by the state Department of Labor, which is responsible for enforcing North Carolina's workplace safety laws.

A group of survivors of the fire and the estates of those killed sued the department for negligence, a suit the state Industrial Commission refused to dismiss. The Labor Department sought to have the suit dismissed by the appeals court, holding that North Carolina law charges employers, not the Labor Department, with guaranteeing workplace safety. But a three-judge panel disagreed.

The law "clearly imposes specific duties upon the commissioner of labor to enforce inspection laws, to inspect the workplaces of North Carolina and to prosecute violations. One obvious purpose of this statute is to provide for the safety of people who work in commercial establishments and to protect them from injuries in the workplace arising from unsafe conditions. Therefore, we hold that a violation of these duties to inspect and enforce can give rise to an action for negligence," wrote Judge John B. Lewis.

North Carolina law limits the state's liability to $100,000 per plaintiff, or a total of $8.1 million in this case.

The state intends to ask the North Carolina Supreme Court to review the decision, said a spokeswoman for the state attorney general.