Black Lung Work Illness Benefits Upheld for Former Smoker

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit recently upheld a lower court’s decision to grant federal Black Lung benefits to a former coal miner, despite the fact that his years as a cigarette smoker had raised questions regarding the source of his illness.
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The case of Central OH Coal Co. v. Dir.r, Office of Workers’ Comp. Programs reveals that when it comes to federal benefits for “black lung,” there is much in the worker’s favor, assuming he has an experienced Asheville work injury lawyer to advocate on his behalf.

The Black Lung Benefits Act allows for payment to workers deemed 100 percent disabled due to pneumoconiosis, which is a chronic dust disease of the lung caused by coal mining. It’s distributed through the U.S. Department of Labor, unlike workers’ compensation benefits, which are overseen by the state.

Still, a diagnosis alone won’t automatically result in benefits, particularly if there are complicating factors (such as years of tobacco use). This is where an experienced attorney can be invaluable.

In these cases, there are two definitions of pneumoconiosis – clinical and legal. The first refers to those conditions recognized by the medical community, while the second definition is broader and refers to any lung disease caused in this instance by exposure to coal dust.

In order to secure benefits, a claimant needs to show by a preponderance of the evidence that:

  • He has pneumoconiosis;
  • The condition was the result in whole or in part from his coal mining employment;
  • He is totally disabled;
  • The total disability is the result of pneumoconiosis.

This claimant was born in 1945 and worked for at least 23 years in the coal mining industry. However, at no point did he work below ground. Rather, he worked a gamut of jobs above ground, including strip mining, augering, loading and driving coal trucks and general maintenance. He was laid off in 1999.

He was soon asked to return to work at the mine, but could not pass the required physical exam due to the poor condition of his lungs. The company was worried he might “pass out and hurt himself or someone else.” He’d been using an oxygen mask since 1995, when he was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease resulting from a combination of coal dust and tobacco use.

In 2006, the claimant field for federal Black Lung Benefits. The claim was denied initially by the District Director of the Division of Coal Mine Workers’ Compensation (overseen by the U.S. Department of Labor). He requested a formal hearing, which was overseen by an administrative law judge (ALJ).

The judge heard testimony indicating the former coal miner had been a heavy smoker for nearly 45 years, until he quit in February 2005. When he did smoke, he consumed between 1.5 to 2 packs daily.

The ALJ nonetheless determined the worker was entitled to a statutory presumption of “black lung” because he’d spent more than 15 years working at the coal mines in conditions substantially similar to those of workers underground. The ALJ also found the company failed to adequately rebut this presumption through proof the worker had neither clinical nor legal pneumoconiosis. Various radiologists had presented testimony that was contradictory, as did five doctors. Still, the presumption of clinical pneumoconiosis withstood scrutiny.

The coal company appealed. Still, the decision was affirmed by the Sixth District appellate panel, which found the decision was supported by a substantial amount of evidence.

If you have been injured at work, contact the Lee Law Offices at 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:
Central OH Coal Co. v. Dir.r, Office of Workers’ Comp. Programs, Aug. 7, 2014, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth cuit

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