50 coal miners in Tuscaloosa County have filed Workman's Compensation lawsuits against Warrior Met Coal this year, with most claiming that conditions in their coal mines have led to bilateral hearing loss.

The high number of cases is unusual -- in 2019, just seven workers filed workman's compensation lawsuits against Warrior Met Coal. 47 of the miners who have sued the company this year are represented by Tuscaloosa attorney Steve W. Ford, who told Townsquare Media he has been litigating workman's compensation claims for more than 40 years.

The reason for the spike in lawsuits, Ford said, is because of a change in ownership and management at the coal mines.

Ford said when coal mines in West Alabama were run by Jim Walter of Walter Energy, they eventually worked out an excellent working relationship and most workman's compensation claims were filed and settled before a lawsuit was ever necessary.

"Worker's compensation was never designed to end up in court," Ford said. "It was really designed to be resolved without having to go to court."

Walter Energey declared bankruptcy in 2016, though, and its assets were soon after sold to Warrior Met Coal.

Ford said attorneys for Warrior Met Coal were not as willing to quickly resolve workers compensation claims, especially those filed because of hearing loss.

When negotiations with new ownership proved fruitless, a miner seeking compensation for hearing loss filed a lawsuit, with Ford as their attorney.

Ford said the representatives for Warrior Met Coal filed to end the case through summary judgment, arguing among other things that hearing loss is an on-going issue, with no specific date of injury, and that it is not ripe to be resolved through workman's compensation. A local judge denied the motion for summary judgment, and when the case went on to the Court of Civil Appeals, they also ruled in favor of Ford and the miners.

Ford said that first suit was something of a test case, and as others have seen the courts turn down Warrior Met Coal's arguments, they have come forward with hearing loss claims of their own, four dozen so far this year.

Ford said to be eligible for workman's compensation, workers need only to demonstrate that conditions at their job were a contributing factor to their injury. Not the sole factor, or even the dominant factor -- just a contributing factor.

He said hearing loss is a permanent condition and like carpal tunnel syndrome, it should not be ignored or go uncompensated just because it occurs over a long period.

Stay tuned to this site and station for more information on these cases as they develop.

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