U.S. Tenth Circuit - The FindLaw 10th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries Blog

Coal Dust, Not Smoking, Caused Worker's Death, Court Rules

Bradford McClean spent almost half his life working in coal mines.

By the time he quit, doctors said less than one-third of his lungs were working. He claimed benefits under the Black Lung Benefits Act, then he died.

His widow continued with the claim, but McClean's employer said he died from smoking -- not black lung disease.

Pneumoconiosis

In Spring Creek Coal Company v. McClean, an administrative law judge concluded that the miner suffered and died from pneumoconiosis, also known as "black lung disease." The BLBA was designed to provide benefits to coal miners and their surviving dependents.

The Act covers medical treatment, travel, and related costs for the miner's disease. Monthly benefits for a widow are $644.

Spring Creek Coal Company argued that McClean died from his decades-long smoking habit. The U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed.

The appeals court said the company's medical experts did not give enough "credible medical evidence" to defeat McClean's claim.

Rebuttal Presumption

Under 20 C.F.R. Section 718.305(b), the court noted, the company could rebut the presumption that the miner died from the disease. It would have to show that McClean didn't have the disease or that "no part of the miner's death" was caused by the disease.

The company argued that the requirement applied to underground miners and not McClean, who worked above ground. The appeals court said the working conditions were substantially similar.

To qualify under the Act, "a surface miner must only establish that he was exposed to sufficient coal dust in his surface mine employment," the judges said.

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