The Supreme Court Monday agreed to resolve a dispute over what criteria must be met by a coal miner or the miner's family before they can qualify for benefits for a disability caused by black lung disease.

The court agreed to decide whether some appeals courts are erring in their interpretation of the Black Lung Benefits Act, which established a federal program to provide benefits to coal miners and their families in the event of disability or death due to pneumoconiosis, or black lung disease, caused by mining.The Justice Department says the court's interpretation could have an immediate impact on 2,000 to 3,500 claims, each valued at between $118,000 and $185,000, that remain in litigation.

At issue is what standards a miner or the miner's family must meet before being eligible for benefits, most of which are paid by the coal companies or their insurers.

Coal companies claim the act has been wrongfully interpreted by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to allow awarding of benefits in cases where total disability from the disease is not present or disability is unrelated to black lung disease.

The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled differently.

Black lung disease is a disabling and sometimes fatal respiratory ailment caused by prolonged inhalation of coal dust.

Under the Black Lung Benefits Act, disability claims filed by June 30, 1973, were considered by the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. Claims filed after that date would be considered by the Department of Labor.

However, the two departments had varying regulations on determining whether someone was entitled to benefits under the act, and interpretation of those regulations has caused havoc in the nation's court system.

The Supreme Court, which agreed to hear three cases in a consolidated manner, was expected to announce a decision on the issue sometime next year.