Black Lung Clinic Students Represent Clients in Hearings

On Thursday, December 4, 2003, two Black Lung Clinic students, Chris Vrettos, '04L, and Stephanie Dawson, '04L, represented clients in separate Black Lung hearings held in Beckley, WV before Judge Daniel L. Leland. Black Lung, the common name given to Coal Miner's pneumonoconiosis and silicosis, is a job related diseased caused by the inhalation of coal dust and dust containing silica. When this dust enters the lungs, the lungs begin to deteriorate and make breathing difficult. The silica causes scar tissue to form in the lungs, thus reducing the lungs ability to remove oxygen from the air.

Black Lung cases fall into two categories - 'living miner cases' and 'survivor cases.' A living miner case is brought by the miner himself for federal benefits whereas a survivor's case is brought by the widow of a miner. Chris Vrettos represented Eugene Perdue in a living miner's case. Vrettos' case was defended by the federal Black Lung Trust Fund. This is the entity that would stand to pay benefits if no mining company or "no responsible operator" exists to pay. Dawson represented Rosie Mills in a survivor's case against the West Virginia Occupational Pneumonoconiosis Fund. The Fund is a state chartered insurance company that represents mines that are too small or too in debt to pay claims.

Both cases were received in the Black Lung Clinic in 2002. Initial evidence was gathered and prepared by students during the 2002-2003 school year and throughout the summer. Vrettos and Dawson conducted the final preparation of the cases for the hearings including receiving all evidence from experts, exchanging evidence with opposing counsel in advance of the hearing and preparing witnesses.

During the hearings, both students introduced medial evidence into the record, made opening statements, and conducted the direct examination of the clients. Vrettos and Dawson will submit a written closing argument to the court in early February. The argument, similar to an appellate brief, will discuss the procedural posture of the case, the facts of the case and will argue why their medical evidence is superior to that offered against their clients.

"I have been in the Clinic for four years, and these were two of the best examples of student work that I have seen," said Jim Phemister, Professor of Law and Supervising Attorney for the Black Lung Clinic. "Almost as impressive as Chris and Steph's work, however, was the fact that six of their classmates drove over that morning in the snow and ice so that they could see their classmates at work. Given that they had to drive in bad weather, leave at 7am, give up virtually an entire day, and do it all right before exams started, I thought it was an amazing show of support."

The Black Lung Clinic is one of three significant clinical opportunities afford by a Washington and Lee law school education. The Black Lung Clinic provides second and third year students with invaluable hands on experience while helping to meet the need for legal assistance in the region and developing client contact and advocacy skills. More information on the Black Lung Clinic can be found on the Black Lung Clinic website.
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