In a ruling that could lead to higher costs for the coal industry, a divided Kentucky Supreme Court struck down the state’s black lung law, saying it discriminates against sick coal miners by depriving them of a constitutional guarantee of equal protection under the law.
The court issued its opinion just before Christmas in an appeal brought by two veteran coal miners who had been denied black lung benefits under a law enacted by the General Assembly several years ago.
The majority opinion written by Justice Will T. Scott said coal miners must meet more stringent standards, and are subjected to a more extensive battery of tests, than other workers before they can qualify for the benefits.
“Despite the fact that there is no real distinction between the various forms of pneumoconiosis, (Kentucky law) treats coal workers differently than those from other occupations with respect to workers’ compensation,” the court said. To establish the presence of pneumoconiosis, the official term for black lung disease, Kentucky law “requires a different procedure to establish its presence than it requires for all other types of pneumoconiosis.” In addition, the law requires “clear and convincing” evidence to rebut a panel consensus for coal workers’ black lung claims while the law requires only “a reasonable basis” to rebut a similar evaluation for other workers.
In a dissenting opinion, Chief Justice John Minton said the court should not overturn the Legislature’s action on equal protection grounds “unless the varying treatment of different groups of persons is so unrelated to the achievement of any combination of legitimate purposes that we can only conclude that the (General Assembly’s) actions were irrational.”
Moreover, the court should be “quite reluctant to overturn (legislative) action even if the law seems unwise or works to the disadvantage of a particular group, or if the rationale for it seems tenuous,” he added.
He continued: “In my view, the majority opinion reaches its intended result by ignoring these well-settled tenets of law, invading the province of the Legislature to force a sea-change in workers’ compensation law and leaving Kentucky’s equal protection precedent in shambles.”
The immediate effect of the ruling was unclear in late December. The General Assembly is scheduled to convene in Frankfort in January for the start of its 2012 session, and some observers predicted lawmakers will address the court decision then.