CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The families of three deceased coal miners may pursue lawsuits that allege the Jackson Kelly law firm wrongly concealed evidence that those miners had black lung disease, a Raleigh County judge has ruled.
Circuit Judge Harry L. Kirkpatrick III rejected an effort by Jackson Kelly to have dismissed lawsuit brought by the families of former coal miners Clarence Carroll, Normal Dale Eller, and Gary Fox.
The ruling is the latest in a more than three-year legal battle over the behavior of Jackson Kelly lawyers representing coal companies that opposed the awarding of government black lung benefits to West Virginia coal miners.
One Jackson Kelly black lung attorney has already lost his law license for a year, and the suits by Carroll, Eller and Fox seek damages against the firm for allegedly covering up evidence that the miners had the deadly disease. Jackson Kelly has denied any wrongdoing.
Jackson Kelly is the state's largest and oldest law firm, and the coal industry has long been among its major clients. The firm has said that its black lung practice -- focused on opposing benefit claims by miners -- is "among the nation's largest," with industry clients around the country.
Black lung, or coal workers' pneumoconiosis, is a debilitating and often fatal lung disease caused by breathing coal dust.
In 1969, Congress placed strict limits on airborne dust and ordered coal operators to take periodic tests inside the mines. The law has reduced black lung among the nation's miners. But, at least partly because of industry cheating on dust samples, the law has fallen short of its goal of eliminating the disease.
Under the 1969 law, coal miners are also eligible for monthly payments if they have black lung that would prevent them from working. Coal operators can challenge applications for such benefits and the resulting cases often depend on the results of X-rays and CT scans.