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Carter v. Illinois Workers' Comp. Comm'n

Court of Appeals of Illinois, Fifth District, Workers' Compensation Commission Division

June 9, 2014

JACK CARTER, Appellant,
v.
THE ILLINOIS WORKERS' COMPENSATION COMMISSION et al. (Old Ben Coal Co./Horizon Natural Resources, Appellee)

Page 479

Appeal from the Circuit Court of the Twentieth Judicial Circuit, Randolph County, Illinois. Circuit No. 11-MR-25. Honorable Richard A. Brown, Judge, Presiding.

SYLLABUS

In claimant coal miner's action under the Workers' Occupational Diseases Act where the medical evidence showed that claimant was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), the arbitrator's finding that the claim was barred by the three-year statute of limitations applicable to diseases other than coal workers' pneumoconiosis was affirmed, notwithstanding his contention that the five-year statute of limitations applicable to coal workers' pneumoconiosis applied, since applying the five-year statute to only claims for coal workers' pneumoconiosis and not claims for COPD arising from exposure to coal dust does not treat " similarly situated" individuals differently, especially when the conditions involve different disease processes affecting different parts of the lung, and the five-year statute did not mention COPD.

For Appellant: Darrell Dunham, Darrell Dunham & Associates, Carbondale, IL.

For Appellee: Cheryl L. Intravaia, Feirich/Mager/Green/Ryan, Carbondale, IL.

PRESIDING JUSTICE HOLDRIDGE delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Honorable Thomas E. Hoffman, J., Honorable Donald C. Hudson, J., Honorable Thomas M. Harris, Jr., J., and Honorable Bruce D. Stewart, J., Concur.

OPINION

HOLDRIDGE PRESIDING JUSTICE.

Page 480

[¶1] The claimant, Jack Carter, filed a claim against Old Ben Coal Co./Horizon Natural Resources (the employer) under the Workers' Occupational Diseases Act (the Act) (820 ILCS 310/1 et seq . (West 2008)) alleging coal workers' pneumoconiosis and claiming a last exposure date of September 24, 2004. Medical evidence presented at the hearing indicated that the claimant was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) caused in part by exposure to coal dust but was not diagnosed with coal workers' pneumoconiosis. The arbitrator found that the claimant's claim was time-barred because it was not filed within the three-year statute of limitations applicable to claims alleging occupational diseases other than coal workers' pneumoconiosis. See 820 ILCS 310/6(c) (West 2008).

[¶2] The claimant appealed the arbitrator's decision to the Illinois Workers' Compensation Commission (the Commission), arguing that the arbitrator erred by applying the Act's three-year statute of limitations to the claimant's claim rather than the five-year statute of limitations governing claims for disability caused by " coal miners pneumoconiosis." The Commission unanimously affirmed the arbitrator's decision.

[¶3] The claimant then sought judicial review of the Commission's decision in the circuit court of Randolph County, which confirmed the Commission's ruling. The claimant filed a motion to reconsider the court's ruling in which he argued for the first time that the " statutory scheme devised by the Illinois legislature" ( i.e., the legislature's enactment of a five-year statute of limitations for " coal miners pneumoconiosis" and a three-year statute of limitations for other pulmonary conditions like COPD) " violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Illinois Constitution." The circuit court denied the claimant's motion to reconsider. This appeal followed.

[¶4] FACTS

[¶5] For more than 22 years, the claimant worked for the employer as a coal miner. Although he spent one year working above ground, 90% percent of his career with the employer was spent underground. During his employment, the claimant was exposed to coal dust both underground and above ground. During the dustiest conditions he encountered underground, the claimant could only see 10 to 15 feet in front of him. In lighter dust he could see approximately 30 to 40 feet.

[¶6] The employer's mine closed on September 24, 2004. That was the claimant's last day at the mine and his last exposure to coal dust. Before his last day, the claimant told two foremen that he was having breathing problems. He said that he was experiencing " congestion." He did not mention that he thought he had black lung or coal workers' pneumoconiosis.

[¶7] On September 3, 2008, the claimant filed an application for adjustment of claim with the Commission seeking benefits under the Act for heart, lung, and breathing problems (including pneumoconiosis) caused by exposure to coal dust, rock dust, fumes, and vapor during the course of his employment. On December 15, 2008, the claimant filed a claim under the federal Black Lung Benefits Act (30 U.S.C. § 901 et seq . (2006)).

[¶8] The claimant's union recommended that the claimant be evaluated by Dr. William

Page 481

Houser, who is board certified in internal medicine and pulmonary disease. On February 16, 2009, Dr. Houser examined the claimant in connection with the claimant's federal claim for black lung benefits. The claimant told Dr. Houser that he had smoked 1 1/2 packs of cigarettes per day from age 16 through age 30. Dr. Houser noted that the claimant rode his bicycle up to 10 miles per day, 3 times per week in the summertime. An x-ray of the claimant's chest was interpreted as negative for coal workers' pneumoconiosis by Dr. Daniel Whitehead, a B-reader. The claimant's arterial blood gas testing levels were normal. However, a spirometry revealed mild obstruction in the claimant's airways, primarily in his small airways.

[¶9] Dr. Houser diagnosed mild COPD and arterial sclerotic heart disease with an " age indeterminate anteroseptal myocardial infarct." [1] Dr. Houser opined that the claimant's COPD was secondary to the inhalation of coal and rock dust during his work as a coal miner and his smoking history. Dr. Houser opined that the claimant's arterial sclerotic heart disease was secondary to the claimant's cigarette smoking and ...


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