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Employer’s liability for black lung benefits upheld

Employer’s liability for black lung benefits upheld

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld an employer’s liability for black lung benefits to a coal miner it cumulatively employed for more than a year.  

Frontier-Kemper Constructors Inc. had appealed a decision and order of the U.S. Department of Labor Benefits Review Board holding the Sylmar, California-based construction services firm responsible for the payment of benefits to coal miner Grat M. Smith under the Black Lung Benefits Act, according to the decision published Thursday. Frontier-Kemper did not contest Mr. Smith’s eligibility for benefits but disputed its liability for the claim — a stance rejected by the appeals court in Frontier-Kemper Constructors Inc. v. Director, Office of Workers Compensation Programs, U.S. Department of Labor, Grat Smith.

The statute provides benefits to miners who are disabled by pneumoconiosis, and the disabled miner’s most recent employer is generally liable for payment of those benefits, the decision noted. Only “operators,” as defined by the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act, can be liable for black lung benefits claims. When an operator is acquired or reorganizes, liability for benefits claims transfers to the “successor operator.”

Frontier Constructors and Kemper Construction formed a partnership that worked on heavy construction projects in the mining industry and employed Mr. Smith — who worked for a variety of coal mine construction companies throughout his career — from December 1973 through August 1974, according to the decision. In 1982, the partnership reorganized into a newly formed corporation and again hired Mr. Smith to work on two mine repair projects from August through November 2005.

After X-rays revealed opacities in Mr. Smith’s lungs, he filed a claim under the statute, and the department determined that Frontier-Kemper was a successor operator to the partnership and deemed his partnership employment to be employment with Frontier-Kemper, according to the decision. The department also determined Mr. Smith had worked for the partnership and corporation for a cumulative period of just over one year.

The appellate court ruled that liability attached to Frontier-Kemper because the company chose to acquire the partnership — four years after Congress expanded the statute to make the partnership liable for black lung benefits — and because the company had “ample opportunity” to evaluate and insure its exposure to black lung benefits claims before it acquired the partnership and well before it decided to hire Mr. Smith in 2005.

The appeals court also rejected the company’s claim that the administrative law judge erred in determining that the total period of Mr. Smith’s employment with Frontier-Kemper and the partnership was at least a year. 

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