Sixth Circuit Upholds Claim for Black Lung Benefits

For most Americans, the risk of injuries on a day-to-day basis is very low, with little worry that one will be habitually exposed to dangers such as a reckless driver, a hole in the ground, or an icy porch. For some, though, there are inherent risks in the work they do every day, arising from exposure to dangerous environmental conditions and elements. The risk of a Tennessee work injury is particularly high for people who work in the coal mining industry, which, for many years, has been proven to lead to serious health issues. In order to address these known complications, Congress passed the Black Lung Benefits Act, which entitles certain coal miners to benefits if they become physically disabled as a result of their coal mining work. A recent case before the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals looked at what is required in order to qualify for these benefits.

In this administrative appeal case, R.D. filed a claim for black lung benefits after he was rendered fully disabled due to black lung disease and a lifetime spent working in the coal mines. During the pendency of his claims, he passed away, and his wife brought a claim for survivor’s benefits. R.D.’s claim was granted by the administrative law judge who heard the case and was appealed by the defense insurer, who requested a full hearing. After the full hearing, R.D.’s claim was again granted. The insurer appealed again to the administrative board, which also affirmed the grant of benefits. Finally, the insurer appealed to the Sixth Circuit.

Under the Black Lung Benefits Act, a claimant can qualify for benefits if he or she shows that (1) he or she is a miner (2) who suffers from black lung disease (3) arising out of coal mining employment (4) if it contributed to a partial or total disability. If a claimant shows that he or she worked in a coal mine for at least 15 years, and the work was in an underground mine or conditions substantially similar to an underground mine, there is a rebuttable presumption that the miner was disabled, or killed, by black lung disease. An employer or insurer may rebut the presumption by showing that the miner did not have black lung disease, or that any respiratory illness suffered by the miner did not arise from coal mine employment.

Here, R.D. worked for a coal mine for 25 years. Although the mine was not an underground mine, he worked in conditions substantially similar to an underground mine, including shoveling coal dust, and frequently came home entirely covered in coal dust. He did not smoke but suffered from severe respiratory problems, eventually requiring full-time oxygen and leaving him unable to exercise or even walk. R.D.’s wife testified that he was fully disabled as a result of black lung disease, and the disease led to his eventual death.

On appeal, the insurer in R.D.’s case tried to argue that he did not have the 15 years of employment necessary to create the rebuttable presumption that R.D. qualified under the black lung benefits act, since his employment was not substantially similar to that of working in an underground mine. Under the applicable regulations, work is substantially similar to working in an underground mine if the worker is regularly exposed to coal dust. While the insurer argued that R.D. could not establish this was the case, the lower court judges found that R.D. had credibly testified that he was exposed to such coal dust on a regular basis, and his wife testified on these issues as well. Although such statements were only anecdotal, courts have consistently held that anecdotal evidence is sufficient, since it would be impossible for workers to have access to information about the precise conditions of a mine.

In light of these prior findings and conclusions, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals determined that R.D. did indeed have qualifying employment necessary for the rebuttal presumption, and, accordingly, the presumption applied. Since the insurer had not defeated the presumption, the court held that R.D. and his wife were entitled to benefits.

Black lung claims are a niche area of personal injury law, but one that is crucially important for families who grew up in coal mining communities, or who have family members who mined. If you have a family member who has mined in the past and now suffers from a respiratory illness, premises liability attorney Eric Beasley can help you determine whether you may have a valid claim under the black lung benefits act. If you have recently been injured and are uncertain about your rights, contact the Law Office of Eric Beasley today at 615-859-2223.

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