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The widow of a coal miner who died after suffering from pneumoconiosis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease should receive survivor benefits, even though doctors said his smoking habit may have contributed to his death, the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Thursday.
Johnnie Collins worked in various mining industry jobs from 1943 to 1983, and spent the last 11 years of his career at Pond Creek Mining Co. in West Virginia, records show. Mr. Collins was a regular smoker during his career who later quit the habit, and he filed for lifetime injury benefits under the federal Black Lung Benefits Act.
To receive Black Lung benefits, a mining employee must show that he or she suffers from clinical or “legal” pneumoconiosis, which includes any chronic lung disease arising out of coal mine employment. An administrative law judge found in 1988 that Mr. Collins suffered from COPD and that his coal mine work likely contributed to his condition, records show.
The judge awarded Black Lung benefits to Mr. Collins based on his COPD, records show. Pond Creek paid the benefits until Mr. Collins' death in 1997 and did not appeal that award.
Nora Collins, Mr. Collins' widow, filed for survivor benefits under the Black Lung act shortly after her husband's death, according to court filings. Pond Creek opposed that filing, and an administrative law judge who reweighed case evidence ruled in 2001 that Mr. Collins did not suffer from pneumoconiosis. Therefore, the judge found that Ms. Collins could not receive survivor benefits.
The 4th Circuit appeals court vacated the judge's denial of survivor benefits in 2006, and remanded the case to determine if pneumoconiosis contributed to Mr. Collins death, records show. The case has since been considered by two administrative law judges and in three decisions by the federal Black Lung Benefits Review Board.
Most recently, an administrative law judge determined in 2012 that Ms. Collins should not receive benefits, and the benefits review board upheld that decision in 2013.
On Thursday, the 4th Circuit unanimously reversed the latest denial of survivor benefits to Ms. Collins. The court noted that seven medical experts for Pond Creek found that Mr. Collins did not have pneumoconiosis, and that six of those doctors found that he suffered from COPD or severe pulmonary disease due to his smoking.
However, the federal court found that the “legal” pneumoconiosis that Mr. Collins was diagnosed with during his life was shown in evidence to have “hastened” his eventual death — a causation standard for receiving Black Lung benefits.
There “is no support in the record that Mr. Collins suffered from a different pulmonary impairment beyond the COPD that we have already held to be pneumoconiosis,” the ruling reads.
The court remanded Ms. Collins case for an award of survivor benefits.
“Mrs. Collins was 62 years old when she first filed her claim. She is now 78,” the ruling reads. “We hold, better late than never, that she has satisfied the test for survivor's benefits: she is the surviving spouse of a miner whose death was hastened by pneumoconiosis due at least in part to coal mine employment. The ravages of her husband's long years in the mines should yield at least the legacy of provision for his surviving spouse.”