Kentucky jury awards $67.5 million to miners who used defective dust masks

Black-lung disease damages the organ and causes a decline in respiratory function.
Black-lung disease damages the organ and causes a decline in respiratory function. Getty Images

A Knott County jury has awarded $67.5 million in damages to two former coal miners who claimed defective dust masks led to their debilitating black-lung disease.

Of the total, $62.5 million was awarded as punitive damages against the mask maker, 3M Company, according to the verdict form. The remaining amount is to compensate brothers Leslie and Michael Cox for past and future pain and suffering.

The judgment is thought to be one of the largest ever in an Eastern Kentucky civil lawsuit .

Coal miners wear masks to avoid breathing dust that is generated during mining. Breathing in coal dust causes black lung, an incurable disease that chokes off breathing and often leads to premature death.

The jury ruled after a three-week trial that the 3M equipment, also called a respirator, was in such a “defective and unreasonably dangerous condition” that an ordinarily prudent company would not have put it on the market for use in mining, according to the verdict form.

The jury ruled that 3M acted with "reckless disregard" for the safety of the Cox brothers and others, justifying the whopping punitive-damage award.

Jurors did not assign any liability for the brothers' lung problems to coal companies where they worked. The verdict form listed more than a dozen mine employers for each man.

However, jurors said both miners had failed to exercise ordinary care for their own safety, meaning 3M was not 100 percent at fault for their injuries.

The reason was that both men smoked. The jury attributed 40 percent of the fault for Leslie Cox's lung injury and 30 percent of Michael Cox's to the company.

That means 3M would only be liable for that percentage of the jury's award for compensatory damages, which was $3.75 million for Leslie Cox and $1.25 million for Michael Cox.

However, 3M would be liable for all the punitive-damage amount if the judgment stands.

Lori Anderson, a spokeswoman for 3M, said the company is disappointed in the verdict and plans to appeal.

The attorneys for the Cox brothers are Richard Friedman and Henry Jones of Bremerton, Wash., and Adam Collins and Patrick Conley of Hindman, according to the Knott County Circuit Clerk's office.

Friedman declined comment.

There are numerous similar claims pending in which miners allege the equipment was defective and substantially contributed to their black-lung disease, said Knott Circuit Clerk Lisa Bolen.

Black lung has been the cause of about 78,000 deaths since the late 1960s, federal officials have said, and there has been a resurgence of the disease in recent years, especially in Eastern Kentucky.

Researchers identified a number of factors driving the increase in black lung, including miners working longer shifts; increased mining of thinner coal seams in Central Appalachia, which requires cutting through more rock; inadequate dust-control rules; and failure by coal companies to comply with the rules.