Black Lung Benefits Act - "Operators" and "Responsible Operators"

Whether an employer is an "operator" or "responsible operator" of a coal mine will determine its liability under the Black Lung Benefits Act. By way of amendments to the Act, a coal mine operator has been identified as either a person or entity who operates, controls, or supervises a coal mine or who employs individuals in coal transportation or coal mine construction. With respect to the transportation and construction employers, the Act tempers the definition of "operator" by qualifying it with language that the employees of such employer must be exposed, as a result of their employment, to coal mine dust. There is a rebuttable presumption here that the employee was, in fact, regularly exposed to coal mine dust.

In order to fix liability on the employer, it must not only be an "operator" of a coal mine, but be also the "responsible operator." As a basic matter, the Act provides that the employer subject to liability as the "responsible operator" is the employee's most recent employer. However, to claim benefits, the employee must have continuously worked for this most recent employer for at least one year. The only way the employer can stave off the attachment of liability is to prove that another operator is responsible. The employer would, therefore, bear the burden of showing that not only was another employer an "operator" within the meaning of the Act, but also that the employee worked continuously for the other employer for at least one year and that such employment was later in time than that of the employer seeking to avoid liability.

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