The Black Lung Benefits Act compensates coal miners disabled by pneumoconiosis, also known as black lung disease, and their dependents in Pennsylvania and across the country. Two coal miner widows who separately claimed benefits were both initially unsuccessful when they failed to present sufficient evidence that the occupational disease had been at least in part the cause of their husbands' deaths, a required element of any claim for benefits at the time.
Because of a change of law in the interim, they both recently succeeded on second separate claims consolidated for review by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit after the corporate defendants petitioned for review of the awards of benefits. In 2010, Section 1556 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act operated to eliminate the required element of proof of death by black lung disease and to allow claims based on eligibility for benefits at the time of death. The corporate petitioners argued that the second claims were res judicata, or something already adjudicated, in that the adverse decisions in the first claims barred them because the evidence for the first claims was the same as that for the second.
The appeals court accepted the petitioners' point on the evidence but ultimately concluded that the second claims were not barred because for res judicata to apply, the respondent widows must have had a full and fair opportunity to litigate them in the previous case. Under the law at that time, the court concluded, the second claims had not been available to them because the elements of proof were different and the evidence that both miners had been eligible for black lung benefits when they died was clear.
This case demonstrates the value in being aware of changing legislation regarding compensation claims. An employment law attorney may be able to assist families of workers who have died from occupational diseases by informing them of changes in the law and assisting them with claims.
Source: Courthouse News, "Coal Companies Nailed for Black Lung Benefits", Sam Reynolds, July 09, 2013