Fourth Circuit: Miner’s Widow Should Receive Black Lung Benefits

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which oversees North Carolina, has vacated an earlier ruling denying a coal miner’s widow benefits for “Black Lung.” Formally known as pneumoconiosis, the victim argued the condition was the result of his employment.
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The decision in Collins v. Pond Creek Mining Co. settles a long-running claim, and may help pave the way for future claims.

Black Lung Benefits are filed under state workers’ compensation laws, and can be done with the help of an experienced Asheville workers’ compensation lawyer.

The disease is a preventable, occupational condition caused by long-term inhalation of coal mine dust. It’s sometimes referred to as “miner’s asthma” or “silicosis,” those who are diagnosed with the condition can receive compensation from the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, if their former employers no longer exist.

In the Collins case, the employer, Pond Creek Mining Company, was still operational.

Here are the facts:
The worker was employed in mining industry jobs for nearly four decades through 1983 — his last 11 years working for Pond Creek. Throughout this time, he was a regular cigarette smoker, though he did later quit.

When he stopped working in 1983, as a result of his pneumoconiosis, he filed a claim to receive lifetime benefits under the federal act. He didn’t receive approval for those payments until five years later.

The company did not appeal, and the former miner received benefits until he died in 1997.

Shortly thereafter, his widow filed for survivor benefits, asserting that the condition had hastened her husband’s death.

The company opposed the payout of these benefits, asserting that her claim was barred by her husband’s previous claim. An administrative law judge reviewed the case in 2001 and determined that wasn’t so. However, he also ruled the worker hadn’t really had pneumoconiosis to begin with.

After a series of additional rulings, the man’s widow petitioned the Fourth Circuit for review. The appellate court vacated the denial of benefits, finding that the doctrine of collateral estoppel did apply, and that even if the worker had suffered from the disease, the widow had failed to prove his death had been caused or hastened by it. The case was remanded for further determination regarding whether the disease contributed significantly to the worker’s death.

Eight years past. The case bounced back and forth from administrative hearing to administrative hearing. The most recent decision had resulted in a denial of benefits, claiming the physicians’ reports the plaintiff presented weren’t sufficiently reasoned or supported, and sided with company doctors, who determined the worker’s death was caused by smoking.

The Fourth Circuit again was asked to review. This time, it reversed in favor of the widow, finding that the medical experts who had testified on her behalf were credible. So too were the documents filed in the days after her husband’s death, which indicated he suffered from a severe form of the condition that, in addition to COPD, undoubtedly was a significant contributing factor in his death.

If you have suffered a work-related illness in North Carolina, contact the Lee Law Offices at 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:
Collins v. Pond Creek Mining Co., May 1, 2014, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth cuit

More Blog Entries
Employers Seek to Reduce Workers’ Compensation Costs, March 29, 2014, Asheville Worker Compensation Lawyer Blog

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