Coal Miner’s Grandson

By Judge Robert Durham, Cookeville

I was recently thinking about how critical workers’ compensation benefits are for some families, particularly those whose primary breadwinner has died in a work accident. And then I realized something that I’d never thought about, even though I’ve dealt in worker’s compensation for thirty years now: my own family was forever altered by a work-related death.

You see, my mother’s father, Theodore Robert Hamby, was a coal miner. He and his wife, Dovie, raised their five children in Twinton, Tennessee (we’ve always just called it “Twin,” but it seems “Twinton” is its proper name) in Overton County, north of Monterey and near the Kentucky border. Twinton, Highland Junction, and Wilder are some of the colorful names of the communities located in that region at the time. Most are only ghosts of what they used to be, and getting to where these remote company towns existed means driving up and down steep, narrow, mountain roads with drop-offs and curves that require nerves of steel to negotiate.

A hundred years ago, these places were thriving communities, and coal mining was their lifeblood. Wilder actually gained national notoriety in the 1930s due to a miners’ strike protesting poor working conditions. The strike was violent—miners blew up train tracks to keep the mining companies from shipping in workers to cross picket lines, and the strike only ended when two company employees murdered the union president. 

Bombings and shootings aside, coal mining is, was, and always will be, a dangerous way to make a living. 

In fact, when the Tennessee Worker’s Compensation Act became law in 1919, coal mining was one of the occupations specifically exempted. When the exemption was challenged on constitutional grounds in 1923, the Supreme Court upheld the provision, noting that the legislature had a facially neutral reason for the exemption—the job was just too dangerous.

Fortunately, the citizens of Tennessee saw the injustice in that, and the statute was soon amended to include any coal-mining operation with five or more employees. That remained the law for several decades until the statute was further reformed so that coal mining is now one of the few occupations that requires coverage even if only one miner is employed. The amendment was perhaps a response to federal Black Lung legislation; but it nevertheless reflects an acknowledgement of the importance of the magnitude of the hazards coal miners face every day.

Now, back to my grandfather. Sadly, I never got to meet my namesake. On January 24, 1961, he was digging coal when a large boulder fell on him, crushing him to death. When I asked my mom about my grandmother’s claim for death benefits, she told me that she never received any. At the time of his accident, my grandfather was working with some men digging out coal from a mine that had been abandoned by a large mining company. There was no employer and thus no insurance. My grandfather’s family, already poor, were left destitute. If not for the charity of church and community, their situation would have been hopeless.

Which brings me to the point of this story. My family’s lives were changed forever by a work-related injury. As a judge, I see hundreds of people every year in the same situation. Not just injured employees, but also the families who love and depend upon them. I must constantly guard against falling into routine and treating these people casually, or worse, callously. I must always remember that I have the luxury of moving on to the next case, but the people before me have often had their health ruined and their plans shattered by circumstances beyond their control.

Even when the law compels me to an outcome I don’t like on a personal level, I must treat everyone in the courtroom with dignity and respect.

One thought on “Coal Miner’s Grandson

  1. David Dunaway says:

    Great story. Those of us who have worked with injured miners appreciate the risks and hazards associated with this industry. The silent disease is black lung. There should be change in state law to allow permanent partial disability for exposure to coal dust. Today’s standards require permanent and total disability.. Many current miners and former miners are being deprived of benefits.

    More importantly a mine injury can be devastating. The present system is inadequate for rehabilitation. .
    Additionally our Supreme Court has held that the Second Injury Fund now known as the Subsequent Injury Fund is not applicable to black lung claims. These workers who place their lives at risk on a daily basis should not be treated any less than others.

    Thank you for sharing your personal experience.

    David Dunaway
    Maryville, Tennessee


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