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Miner due Black Lung benefits despite smoking history: Court

Miner due Black Lung benefits despite smoking history: Court

A former coal mine worker with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease should receive benefits under the federal Black Lung Benefits Act despite his nearly 40-year history of cigarette smoking, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled has ruled.

Larry Sterling worked for Central Ohio Coal Co., a former subsidiary of American Electric Power based in Cumberland, Ohio, court records show. He was laid off in 1999 after at least 23 years in the coal industry.

Central Ohio asked Mr. Sterling to return to work some time after that, but he was unable to pass a physical exam because of the poor condition of his lungs, according to court filings. Mr. Sterling, who had used an oxygen tank since 1995, was diagnosed with COPD after he was laid off.

Mr. Sterling filed for benefits in October 2006 under the Black Lung Benefits Act. His claim was denied by the district director of the Division of Coal Mine Workers' Compensation within the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Workers' Compensation Programs.

Mr. Sterling requested a formal hearing, in which he testified he had been a heavy smoker from 1966 to 2005. An administrative law judge ruled Mr. Sterling's COPD should be presumed to be caused by his work in “very dusty” coal mines, despite smoking an average of 1.5 packs of cigarettes a day for 38 years.

Central Ohio appealed to the Labor Department's Benefits Review Board, which upheld the administrative law judge and the employer appealed to the 6th Circuit.

The company argued that the administrative law judge erred in equating Mr. Sterling's above-ground work and conditions faced by miners who work underground, according to filings. The company also argued the judge failed to properly credit a doctor's testimony that many of Mr. Sterling's COPD symptoms could be associated with smoking.

But in a unanimous ruling Thursday, a three-judge panel of the 6th Circuit upheld paying Black Lung benefits to Mr. Sterling and said claimants are “not required to demonstrate that coal dust was the only cause of his current respiratory problems.”

Therefore, the court said, the administrative law judge properly considered medical expert testimony that “unequivocally concluded that coal-dust exposure contributed to Sterling's COPD.”

Additionally, the court denied Central Ohio's assertion that Mr. Sterling lied about his smoking history.

“Central Ohio suggests that Sterling averaged three packs a day, but that misrepresents the evidence,” and the record “does not substantiate Central Ohio's allegation of a three-pack-per-day smoking history.”