U.S. Fourth Circuit - The FindLaw 4th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries Blog

Black Lung Benefits Act Retroactivity Appeal Claim Rejected

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a rather noteworthy decision for coal miners, operators, and the attorneys that represent them. The case involved the retroactive reach of the Black Lung Benefits Act's revised definition of a mine operator.

Interestingly, due to the framework of the BLBA, the mining company bringing the appeal only sought to challenge their liability, rather than the damages award. Notably, under the BLBA, the injured worker would still be able to receive the awarded damages, even without a finding of liability against the specific company. BLBA is a form of federal worker's compensation for mine workers, so the award comes from a common fund rather than the company.

Technically Wrong

The rather nuanced appeal of Frontier-Kemper sought to escape liability through a rather novel, technical approach

The company argued that since the revised definition for a mine operator was not issued until after the injured employee was first employed, holding them liable requires impermissible retroactivity. The injured worker was employed between 1973 and 1974, and then again in 2005. The definition was expanded in 1977 to be broader and incorporate more companies as mine operators. The hitch is that to be found liable, a company must also have employed the individual for at least one year, cumulatively throughout the person's career.

Frontier-Kemper argued that under the rules in effect in 1973 to 1974, they were not considered a mine operator. The appellate court did not find this argument convincing. It explained that the company had ample notice between 1977 and 2005, when the injured worker was reemployed, to adapt to the new law. Further, it explained that rehiring the worker in 2005 is what triggered the claim, and logically, the company had notice of the law, and of the fact that it had employed the same person previously. 

Though the court recognized the challenges of retroactive applications of statutory definitions, after a careful analysis, it found that retroactivity here was both acceptable and in the interest of justice.

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