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Historic Public Health and Communicable Disease Cases

Applequist v. Oliver Iron Mining Co., 296 N.W. 13 (Minn. 1941).

(Personal Injury, Mining, Adequate Ventilation, Pneumoconiosis, Silicosis)

In 1939 George Simon brought a personal injury suit against Oliver Iron Mining Company for injuries he claimed were caused by Oliver's "failure to provide or maintain an adequate system of ventilation in its underground mines," where Simon worked. Because of the use of drills and jackhammers, particles of silica were in the air of the mine. Simon alleged that because there was not proper ventilation, he breathed these dust particles which caused them to become lodged in his lungs leading him to develop pulmonary dust disease, (pneumoconiosis or silicosis). At issue was a Minnesota statute (1 Mason Minn.St.1927 4174) which required every place of employment to have ventilation that would remove airborne debris "in such a manner as to remove them or render them harmless...." The jury in the lower court found for Simon and awarded him damages of $7,025. However, the judge granted Oliver's motion for judgment non obstante and threw out the jury verdict finding not only that that the ventilation statute did not apply to mines such as the one in question, but also that Simon had failed to prove he had silicosis at all, let alone that he may have contracted it from working in the Oliver mine. He determined that Simon had "wholly failed to sustain the burden" of proving he had silicosis and it was attributed to working in the Oliver Mines and not to the advanced staged of tuberculosis aggravated by syphilis, a condition that preceded Simon's employment in the mine. Mr. Harry C. Applequist, acting as special administrator of Simon's estate after he died, was substituted as the plaintiff and appealed the court's decision. The Supreme Court of Minnesota found that the statute in question did, in fact, apply to mining and noted the enlargement of legislation designed to protect workers due to the rapid increase or industry and technology in order to compensate for the health and safety hazards these new businesses created. They noted, in particular, the creations of Health inspectors and their power to close a business found in violation of Health and Safety statutes and force the owner to comply with the requirements. They found the ventilation statute to be an expansion of the duties placed on employers to protect their workers. They reversed and remanded the case, leaving open the motion for a new trial, as whether the silicosis existed at all and whether it was caused by Simon's employment or his pre-existing conditions was properly a question for jury determination.

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