The family of an underground coal miner killed in a rock fall is entitled to increased death benefits because the company he worked for had violated several mine safety laws, the Supreme Court ruled last week.
Ronnie Charles was killed in 1999 while working for South Akers Mining Co. at Myra in Pike County. A layer of rocks fell on him from an improperly supported mine.
The unanimous Supreme Court ruling upheld previous decisions by the Court of Appeals, the state Workers’ Compensation Board and an administrative law judge that AIG/AIU Insurance Co. of Pittsburgh should pay an additional 15 percent in workers compensation benefits to Charles’ widow and child.
Legal advocates for miners say the importance of the ruling goes beyond the coal industry.
“If there is a worker injured due to an intentional safety violation in any other industry, this ruling would apply to that situation as well,” said Steve Sanders, head of the Citizens Appalachian Law Center in Prestonsburg.
The Kentucky Mine Safety Review Commission said after Charles’ death that company supervisors placed a higher priority on recovering coal than on safety by ordering the miner to illegally work in an area susceptible to a roof collapse.
The commission revoked the credentials of two of the company’s mine managers after the accident.
In the Supreme Court case, the question was whether an insurance carrier is responsible for paying increased death benefits under Kentucky’s workers’ compensation law if an insurance policy says otherwise.
AIG/AIU Insurance argued that terms of the policy with South Akers Mining excluded such coverage. The insurance policy spelled out that South Akers Mining would be responsible for payment in excess of benefits paid out by workers’ compensation law if the company breaks safety laws or regulations.
Dennis R. McGlincy, a Louisville attorney representing the insurance company, argued that the state law requiring increased compensation was enacted to promote workplace safety by penalizing companies for safety violations. Therefore, he said, money paid out under the statute is a penalty for which the company is liable, rather than compensation to an injured worker or surviving family members.
The Supreme Court disagreed, saying the payment of increased benefits is not punitive but merely serves to compensate the victim.
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