Bernard: Hey, it’s Bernard Nomberg with Nomberg Law Firm. We’re back for another Tuesday talk on the law. I’ve got my buddy Chip Nation here. Chip, I appreciate you coming on this morning.
Chip: Thanks for inviting me.
Bernard: Chip’s a local guy who has a practice up in Jasper, and we’ll get to that in a few minutes. But today, we’re going to talk about an area of the law that a lot of folks in this part of the state may or may not be aware of. Part of Chip and his partner Jimmy Warren’s practice in Jasper is on black lung cases. We’re going to talk for a couple of minutes about Chip and his background and where he’s from and all of that. And let’s get after it. Again, I appreciate you being on this morning, and I know you were born and raised in Jasper and went to high school there and eventually found your way to Birmingham. You currently really live here but go to Jasper for work.
Chip: That’s right. It’s been 14 years now —15, including clerking. I grew up in Jasper. My father was a circuit judge for several years, and he still practices there. I went off to college and found my way to Cumberland—it’s a law school, and I never left Birmingham after that, but due to my roots, just decided to go back to Jasper to practice.
Bernard: Of course. Of course. And You and Jimmy have been in practice together for how long now?
Chip: My whole tenure, so 14 years.
Bernard: Excellent. And I suspect you know a couple of decent barbecue restaurants in Walker County.
Chip: There are some good and some famous ones, too.
Bernard: [Laughs] Well, let’s talk about Warren and Associates. So tell the folks, what do you guys do? What kind of work do you handle?
Chip: We do, mainly personal injury, which to me includes workers’ compensation, product liability, and Social Security disability. We market ourselves as a personal injury law firm, but of course, in a small town, you’re willing to do other things to help people. Not everybody knows who to go to or who does what. So you can’t totally specialize, but as much as we can, that’s what we do.
Bernard: Well, in Walker County, just north of Birmingham and the Tuscaloosa area, that’s a unique geographic area of the state. I know that the black lung cases have been around for decades, and your firm, as part of your practice, handles those. So let’s talk about that for a few minutes. As far as I know, from our discussions, the current coal mines that really are active anymore are in Tuscaloosa and Jefferson counties.
Chip: That’s right. Walker County, for decades and decades, had several underground coal mines, and I think there’s still a strip pit or two operational. But mainly, as far as I know, in Alabama, the only operational underground coal mines are in Jefferson and Tuscaloosa.
Bernard: But a lot of, and I know you guys have handled those cases for years, a lot of folks probably live in Walker County but work in those other counties.
Chip: That’s right. And both coal mines in Tuscaloosa and Jefferson are both fairly close to Walker County. So, you do have a lot of residents of Walker County that work in those mines.
Bernard: Now, a typical workers’ compensation case in Alabama is when somebody gets hurt working on the job for an employer. Whether you’re a state employee, and that’s a whole different type of work comp case, or federal—but what we’re talking about is when somebody’s working for private employment and that company, the employer, is subject to the Alabama Workers’ Comp Act. Now within that are cases that we as lawyers call black lung cases. Why don’t you talk a little about what is a black lung case? What type of person gets affected? And let’s delve into that for a few minutes.
Chip: To bore you for a second, but to give you the legal definition—occupational pneumoconiosis, or a lot of times in a coal mine situation, we just call it coal miners pneumoconiosis or black lung, is simply inhaling coal dust and rock dust. That is the baseline definition. But what goes into it is, most of the time, you see coal miners who have worked many decades, two or three decades, in the mines. And as they get older, they say, “Well, I’m getting short of breath,” or “I’m just not able to do what I used to do,” which, of course, part of it could be because of age. But many of these guys feel like there’s more to it than just age. So those guys, we’d recommend go see your doctor; go see a pulmonologist; tell him your work history and that you’ve been around coal dust and rock dust, and see what he says. You have to have a medical diagnosis to pursue a case. But based on your work history, a lot of these guys find that something is more wrong than just old age.
Bernard: Let me ask you. The folks that pursue these types of claims, do they typically become symptomatic and have issues going on and that’s what leads them to the doctor?
Chip: That’s usually what happens. You know, I think a lot of people, especially when you’re focusing on, “I need to get a certain amount of years in; Yeah, I’m having these issues, but I don’t really want to do anything about it right now;” I think a lot of people put it off. So we often see people at the end of their career say, “Hey, I’ve been dealing with this for 10-15 years, but I was able to keep going, and I went and saw my personal doctor, and he said you got asthma or something.” Well, I would recommend to those people, you know, go see a pulmonologist and tell him your work history and the environment you were in and see if it’s not something more than asthma. Or it could be what they call occupational asthma, which would fit under the umbrella of occupational pneumoconiosis.
Bernard: I suspect a lot of these folks just don’t want to know what’s going on with them; they may be scared to know. I think it’s human nature; a lot of folks just don’t want to know what may be going on with their body. Plus, I think another factor may be that these folks are high-wage earners, and they don’t want to not be working and earning for their families. So I understand the tug there that they may put it off.
Other than coughing and shortness of breath, what other symptoms that folks may initially experience may make them or need for them to go get diagnosed or get tested?
Chip: Having trouble breathing at night would be one. You know, if you realize, “Hey, I need an extra pillow here to sleep well at night.” Wheezing, coughing with sputum production—but shortness of breath, I would say, is the tell-tale sign. And again, if you or I are short of breath, you know we don’t work in a dusty environment per se. So if we went to the doctor, he might say, “You’ve got a respiratory infection, or maybe you have asthma.” But these guys who work in this environment are more apt to have work-related breathing issues. And it makes them susceptible to it. So I would encourage anybody with a breathing issue who worked in the mines to don’t just go to your personal doctor—go to a specialist.
Bernard: The specialist being a pulmonologist who’s a lung specialist?
Chip: That’s right.
Bernard: And what type of test do they undergo?
Chip: They’ll do a chest x-ray, which in state cases, you don’t have to necessarily have a positive chest x-ray. You just have to have a diagnosis. And then they’ll put you through the breathing procedures; they’ll get you to blow a balloon up basically, but it’ll have some ability to tell what your lung capacity is and if your lungs are operating correctly or if there’s a restrictive or obstructive defect.
Bernard: What kind of treatment is there? Or is their treatment for folks once they’ve been diagnosed?
Chip: There’s really no treatment for black lung. However, if you do have COPD or asthma that the doctor says, “Maybe you’re not a smoker, but you have COPD, and there’s no other good explanation for why you have it,” there are treatments for those particular lung diseases. But still, you may have an occupational disease, even if it’s just diagnosed as asthma or COPD.
Bernard: I guess getting out of the mine and no longer doing that job is probably the best way for the injured or the diagnosed worker to get some relief.
Chip: Exactly. Almost all doctors, even the ones hired by the coal company, will tell you that if you have black lung, you don’t need to go back.
Bernard: Let’s talk about the other conditions you just mentioned—asthma and COPD. What other, or is that all the other, conditions that you typically have seen, that if they’re not diagnosed with black lung, or maybe even if they are, those are also corresponding conditions that they also have?
Chip: Well, under the umbrella of occupational pneumoconiosis, and we have figured this out through litigation that you better plead occupational pneumoconiosis in your complaint and not coal workers pneumoconiosis.
Bernard: Right, a bigger swath or a bigger umbrella diagnosis.
Chip: That’s right. You can bring in, potentially, the asthma if it’s called occupational asthma, COPD, or any type of restrictive lung disease. So when you go to the pulmonologist and do those breathing tests, if you’re abnormal on any of those, you may be diagnosed with something, and we can talk about a pneumoconiosis case. And it’s not just related to coal workers. I mean, there’s silicosis and aluminosis. I don’t generally see those cases, but they are in Alabama, of people that work in plants or any kind of dust that they breathe in that causes them problems—in any job that makes them more susceptible to breathing in dust and causing these issues, I would go see a pulmonologist and have them evaluate you.
Bernard: Not to put you or me on the spot from a medical standpoint. But from a layperson’s understanding, when someone’s breathing in that dust or the coal, the fine fibers, then the problem that it becomes is because it creates a coating in the inner lining of the lungs, and that’s what creates the inability to have a full lung capacity and breathing. Is that your understanding of what goes on?
Chip: That’s right.
Bernard: Do you see any other professions besides the coal miners and others who may work in plants where there’s that kind of dust? Any other professions you guys have seen with similar diagnoses, and you’ve pursued cases?
Chip: Yeah. Any type of plant where cotton is present in small fibers. Welders are susceptible to breathing in fine particles. And I’ve talked about underground coal miners, but above-ground coal miners—there’s a lot of rock dust on the surface. I would say, more than likely, you’re going to find an underground coal miner to have issues, but we have had issues with above-ground coal miners. So even if you work in a strip pit, you’re potentially capable of getting pneumoconiosis.
Bernard: Chip, what is the time period for which a person has in order to make a claim to go forward?
Chip: From the time you realize or have been diagnosed, that’s called the injury date. You have two years in state court to file a lawsuit from the time of the injury. So if you just recently retired, it’s going to be two years from your last date of work—not just your retirement date.
Bernard: The last date of exposure in the workplace?
Chip: Right. And in pneumoconiosis, you have to have 12 months of being exposed to dust. Unlike other occupational diseases, we don’t have to have a certain amount of time, and you just have to have exposure. So it is a little bit different, treated a little bit differently in the law, but the main thing for everybody to realize is you want to do something about it within two years of last being exposed.
Bernard: Because if you don’t, then potentially you lose your legal rights to pursue those cases. But we’re talking today about state court claims; we’re not talking about federal court claims.
Chip: That’s right. My firm and myself just handle state court. There are not many of us that do it, but we’re one of a handful. Most people, and there’s not a ton of these people either, but most people do the federal black lung. And that is, what I find, the miners are more familiar with through their union and so forth. They really preach federal black lung if you think you have an issue.
Bernard: Do you know if folks can pursue both state and federal?
Chip: You can pursue both. And if we reach a resolution in your state court, it doesn’t prohibit you from going forward.
Bernard: Well, that’s good to know. I should have mentioned this at the beginning, and I apologize. How can folks get in touch with you and Jimmy Warren at your firm?
Bernard: Okay, if anybody has black lung or similar type breathing claims and, particularly, if you’re in Walker County or any of the contiguous counties in this part of the state, to please get in touch with Chip and see if you have a claim to pursue.
Chip: Absolutely, we’d love to help you.
Bernard: Let me ask you, once somebody pursues one of these claims in state court, do you necessarily have trials in these cases? And I know every case is different, but what typically happens with these cases?
Chip: Well, it’s just like any other workers’ compensation case. As you would know, you file your lawsuit; you do discovery; they’ll probably want to take a deposition or two, and may have to go take a doctor’s deposition. And as with the trend and most litigation nowadays, we try to settle these cases after a certain point. And most of the time, we’re able to do that. But at the end of the day, if you can’t, there’s a trial waiting on us.
Bernard: Certainly, and you’re always working toward that trial, but we can resolve it any time prior to that.
Chip: Exactly, and I would say, more often than not, we’re able to resolve it. But of course, it’s never a promise we make when we go into the case because you just never know.
Bernard: Absolutely. Chip, this has been some very informative information. We certainly appreciate you sharing your expertise with us.
Chip: I appreciate you having me.
Bernard: Absolutely. Guys, again, this is Chip Nation with Warren and Associates in Jasper. Let’s shout out that phone number one more time.
Chip: Yes, 205-221-1044.
Bernard: And again, I’m Bernard Nomberg with Nomberg Law Firm. You know we come to you every Tuesday morning to talk about different areas of the law or something fun that’s going on in Alabama. I can always be reached at 205-930-6900. You know our website is www.nomberglaw.com. We’re on Facebook and Twitter. Thank you for spending a few minutes with us. We’ll be back next Tuesday on another area of the law. And we hope you guys have a good rest of your week.
Disclaimer: Please note that this transcript has been generated automatically and may contain errors, inaccuracies or deviations from the original video. It is provided as a convenience and is not intended as an exact representation of the content.