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Saturday, April 13, 2024 | Back issues
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Coal Miner’s Wife Wins Peabody Benefits Appeal

(CN) - Peabody Coal Co. must compensate the widow of a pack-a-day smoker whose lung problems were attributed to coal mining, the 9th Circuit ruled.

Robert Opp developed chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in the 1990s, a few years after he broke his back on the job at a coal mine.

Having spent 39 years in the mines, Opp claimed that his condition constituted legal pneumoconiosis, defined as "a chronic dust disease of the lung and its sequelae, including respiratory and pulmonary impairments, arising out of coal mine employment," and sought benefits under the Black Lungs Benefits Act of 1972.

The benefits review board also heard in 2000 about Opp's 50-year smoking history, which ranged from a half-pack a day to a pack and a half a day, excepting for the sometimes months-long periods in which he tried to kick the habit.

Though Peabody's medical experts claimed that Opp's COPD stemmed from tobacco use and was not attributable to coal dust exposure, an administrative law judge eventually ordered Peabody to pay Opp's widow all the benefits to which Opp was entitled to receive between Jan. 1, 2000, and Aug. 31, 2002.

That ruling found that the negative characterization of the medical literature by Peabody's doctors did not align with prevailing medical views, as set forth in the regulatory preamble to the benefits act.

The Benefits Review Board affirmed the decision, leading Peabody to seek review from the 9th Circuit.

The three-judge panel in Portland sided with the widow Tuesday.

"We find, however, that the ALJ simply - and not improperly - considered the regulatory preamble to evaluate conflicting expert medical opinions," Judge Harry Pregerson wrote for the court, abbreviating administrative law judge. "The ALJ then evaluated the record to determine that Opp's condition did, in fact, arise from coal mine employment. The preamble discusses medical and scientific literature included in the record at the time the Department of Labor amended the regulation defining pneumoconiosis. The evidence supports the conclusion that coal dust exposure contributes to chronic obstructive disease. Thus, we join our sister circuits in holding that an ALJ may consider the regulatory preamble."

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