Eighty Four Mining Co. v. Morris – Black Lung Lawsuit Plaintiff Prevails

Mining is one of the most crucial industries in North Carolina, where some 6,000 workers are employed with an average income of $60,000. The combined direct and indirect output gain from the mining industry in this state was $3.4 billion, as of 2005. mine1

It’s been long been known in this state, coal mining is not without its risks. There was the 1895 Egypt Mine explosion that killed 46 men. Another explosion five years later killed another 22 miners at the same location. Then there was the Carolina Company mine explosion in 1925 in Coal Glen that killed 53 men and decimated half the company’s work force. 

Even those that survived risked long-term hazards to their health. One of those that we continue to see to this day is known as “black lung disease.” An estimated 10,000 Americans have died form the disease just in the last 10 years, and many current and retired minors are continuing to receive new pneumoconiosis diagnoses. 

Since the 1970s, ailing former and current coal miners and their dependents have been able to obtain benefits, thanks to a measure known as the Black Lung Benefits Act. These funds are paid by private coal companies, but they are processed through the U.S. Department of Labor. Claims from both North Carolina and South Carolina are done through the Kentucky Office in the Pikeville District.

The division director makes a decision, but that is usually followed by a series of appeals. The federal government requires defendants to cover plaintiff attorney fees if they lose the claims, which is one way to encourage workers to secure the services of an experienced personal injury lawyer throughout the process.

Recently, a black lung benefits case was before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. In Eighty Four Mine Co. v. Morris, defendant mining company appealed an award of benefits in favor of plaintiff.

Plaintiff worked as a coal miner for 35 years of his life. For 19 of those years, he worked every day under ground. Eventually, he began having difficulty breathing, and he was forced to quit his job.

In 2006, his physician diagnosed him with pneumoconiosis, or black lung disease. This was the basis of his state workers’ compensation claim for occupational benefits.

A doctor for his former employer examined him and determined that, no, his trouble breathing wasn’t caused by black lung disease, but rather by smoking. He purportedly found no radiographic evidence of black lung disease, but he did discover evidence of emphysema, a condition that results from long-term use of cigarettes.

His workers’ compensation claim was ultimately denied, and he didn’t appeal this to the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (his claim had originated in that state).

However, his sickness got worse. A doctor put him on full-time oxygen.

In 2011, he filed for benefits under the Black Lung Benefits Act. He didn’t rely on either of the reports produced for the earlier workers’ compensation claim, but rather on a new arterial blood gas study and pulmonary function testing. Both supported a finding of black lung disease.

The mine opposed application for benefits, saying it was barred because it wasn’t filed within three years of the company doctor’s report. The company also countered worker’s disease was due to smoking, not exposure to coal dust.

Two years later, an administrative law judge overseeing the case granted benefits, finding he’d sufficiently established the existence of the disease through medical evidence obtained after 2010, and the company hadn’t raised a good argument as to why the worker’s years of coal dust exposure weren’t a substantial cause of his impairment.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed.

Additional Resources:

Eighty Four Mine Co. v. Morris, Feb. 9, 2016, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit

More Blog Entries:

Easterling v. Kendall – Medical Malpractice for Failure to Diagnose, Feb. 1, 2016, Asheville Injury Lawyer Blog

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