“COPD” in North Carolina Workers’ Compensation Cases Discussed in Harman v. DOWCP

When you are injured because of work related reasons, you may feel overwhelmed with the workers’ compensation procedures. It is critical to obtain the proper medical care for these common North Carolina work-related injuries.
In order to obtain this medical care, you need an experienced Winston-Salem injury attorney advocating for your rights.

Recently, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals delved into questions surrounding award benefits in workers’ compensation cases stemming from the Black Lung Benefits Act. Harman Mining Co., et al., v. Director, Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs, No. 11-1450 (4th Cir. May 15, 2012). This case arose where an industrial coal miner was diagnosed with disabling obstructive lung disease. Upon review by the workers’ compensation benefits review board, it was found that Mr. Gary Looney (Looney) had suffered with this disease as a result of his work as a coal miner. Because of this, Looney’s widow was awarded black lung benefits from her husband’s former employer. This benefits award was disputed leading to the court case at issue.

Looney worked for Harman Mining Company (Harman) in the Virgina coal mines for seventeen years. This work consisted of heavy manual labor. Looney was also a cigarette smoker for several decades. Two years after Looney retired, he was diagnosed with black lung disease, causing him to apply for workers’ compensation benefits.

The Black Lung Benefits Act (Act) was created to compensate workers who are afflicted with black lung disease, medically termed pneumoconiosis. This disease is the common effect of coal mining and is a dust disease that affects the respiratory and pulmonary systems. In order for a claim for benefits to be successful, the claimant must prove that because of their work, they acquired this pneumoconiosis which had rendered them totally disabled. Coal mining need not be the only reason that the claimant is suffering from the disease; however, it must be that the pneumoconiosis arose in part because of the employment as a coal miner or that coal mining aggravated the condition that was already present. Through a revision of this Act in the year 2000, the definition of pneumoconiosis has been extended to include any chronic restrictive or obstructive pulmonary disease that arises from employment in coal mining.

Upon receiving Looney’s claim for benefits, Harman argued that it should not be held responsible for these benefits payments because it did not believe that this chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) arose because of Looney’s employment.

Thus the main issue for this court was the establishment of whether Looney’s COPD arose at least in part from his employment with Harman.

When there is a dispute surrounding workers’ compensation benefits, it is the discretion of the administrative law judge (ALJ) to make a judgment. The only thing a court can decide is whether there is substantial evidence for the ALJ to have made the factual findings and legal conclusions. In order for the ALJ’s decision to be upheld, the court must find that the decision was rational and consistent with the applicable federal and state law.

This court found substantial medical evidence and doctor testimony to support the finding that Looney had suffered from this COPD because of his dust exposure in coal mining. And, because Harman had failed to meet the burden of showing that there was a mistake of fact in the previous ALJ decision, the previous benefits award was upheld.

Contact the Carolina workers’ compensation attorneys at Lee Law Offices, P.A. for legal advice regarding your case and your rights. We are a dedicated law firm that is here to help to protect the rights of injured workers and their families. Call today to schedule a free and confidential appointment. Call 1-800-887-1965.

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