Amid a chorus of outrage, Congress enacted a special procedure for terminating such benefits. Lawmakers "considered the termination of retiree benefits a true human tragedy," the appeals court wrote, noting that one congressman called LTV's decision "one of the most indefensible and unconscionable acts of any American corporation in this century."

The results of Visteon's recent decision proved "catastrophic," the court said. "Visteon's unilateral decision to terminate benefits has left some retirees without medical care entirely, and forced those too critically ill to do without medical care to sacrifice basic necessities in order to pay for ... coverage," it wrote.

Ms. Roberts, the Visteon retiree who worked with radiators, broke her back while trying to feed her dogs in March 2009. A doctor later diagnosed her with cancer and gave her six months to live. Other doctors recommended monitoring her condition; the cancer hasn't worsened.

Still, Mr. Roberts has been scrambling to find more work to keep up with the couple's expenses. When papers arrived informing the Robertses they could lose their benefits, "Linda was in bed two or three days," Mr. Roberts recalled. "How can you deal with stuff like that, when you're already down and thinking the worst?" he said.

The benefits for Visteon retirees haven't yet been reinstated.

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