What Do You Think: Did 'Blue Substance' Cause Miner's Lung Problems?

21 Sep, 2020 Frank Ferreri


Helena, MT (WorkersCompensation.com) – When a miner who has a lung condition reports that it occurred due to inhaling crystalized mineral dust during the course of his job, how much medical evidence does he need to show it was compensable?

That was the question the Montana’s Workers’ Compensation Court faced when a miner reported working in an escape raise “full of a blue substance” but it wasn’t clear if later exposure to other substances at another job were the main culprit.

After work on the day he encountered the substance, the miner began experiencing shortness of breath and tightness in his chest. After several weeks of treatment for what his doctors thought was an infection, the miner was released to return to work.

He began working on a project with a different company but still had lung problems that caused him to be hospitalized and intubated for several days. A chest CT suggested characteristics of lung disease. A pulmonologist opined that the miner had “likely occupational lung disease and an acute event leading to severe hypoxic respiratory failure.”

Later, the pulmonologist changed his assessment, noting that the miner had “possible” occupational disease. The miner filed a claim for workers’ compensation, and the Montana State Fund denied the claim. The fund contended that the miner had an occupational disease and not an injury and that it was not the insurer for the employer in whose employment the miner was last injuriously exposed.

After this, the pulmonologist observed that the miner’s issues were related to asthma and obstructive lung disease. The pulmonologist concluded that the miner developed lung disease on the job in question and that the condition worsened during his next job. The miner filed a claim for benefits with the WCC.

Under Montana law, pulmonary or respiratory accidents workers experience on the job are only work-related injuries if the accident is the primary cause of the physical condition. This standard requires medical evidence to show that the accident contributed to at least 51 percent of the condition. On the other hand, workers aren’t eligible for benefits when medical findings don’t show a relationship between the condition and the original injury.

Was the crystalized dust the cause of the miner’s lung condition?

A.     Yes. There was no medical evidence to suggest that the exposure to the “blue substance” wasn’t the cause of the miner’s problem, so he was entitled to benefits.

B.     No. The medical evidence didn’t show that an at-work exposure on the day in question was the primary cause of the miner’s lung condition.

If you chose B, you agreed with the WCC in Swan v. Montana State Fund, 2020 MTWCC 19 (W.C.C. Mt. 09/11/20). The WCC ruled against the miner, explaining that the evidence didn’t show that the accident contributed to at least 51 percent of his condition.

The WCC explained that the miner’s doctor should have completed an apportionment opinion indicating what the percentage was. Even if the fund didn’t have medical evidence contradicting the miner’s position, without an indication that the exposure to the substance caused 51 percent of the condition, the WCC could not find a compensable injury.

“Because … he did not have an adequate foundation to give the causation opinions he gave on a more-probable-than-not basis, [the miner] did not meet his burden of proving that he had a compensable injury,” the WCC reasoned.

This feature does not provide legal advice.


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    About The Author

    • Frank Ferreri

      Frank Ferreri, M.A., J.D. covers workers' compensation legal issues. He has published books, articles, and other material on multiple areas of employment, insurance, and disability law. Frank received his master's degree from the University of South Florida and juris doctor from the University of Florida Levin College of Law. Frank encourages everyone to consider helping out the Kind Souls Foundation and Kids' Chance of America.

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