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Attorney Column: A Claimant’s World - Recent Appellate Court Trends
10/30/2018
 
By: Brad B. Easterling, Esq., McAngus Goudelock & Courie, LLC

“A finding that a claimant can perform sedentary or medium duty work does not constitute evidence that such work is available to the claimant.”1

“We find the Commission's conclusion with respect to loss of use is unsupported by the substantial evidence in the record. Specifically, there is no evidence in the record that [Claimant] suffered anything less than a fifty percent impairment to his back.”2

“[Claimant] was undeniably performing a work task when she ‘suffered an injury by accident arising out of and in the course of her employment.’ The Appellate Panel committed an error of law in failing to strictly construe the idiopathic exception to coverage . . . thus, we reverse its denial of compensation.”3

“[W]e find an impairment rating of 46% for a traumatic brain injury sufficiently severe to implicate lifetime benefits for physical brain damage pursuant to section 42-9- 10(C). Therefore, we hold [Claimant] has suffered physical brain damage, entitling him to lifetime benefits under section 42-9-10(C).”4

These are just a few lines from the South Carolina Supreme Court and Court of Appeals’ published and unpublished opinions regarding workers’ compensation claims within the last calendar year. As they show, South Carolina’s appellate courts continue to lean toward favoring injured workers. Few would disagree that it is important to compensate injured employees for valid injuries. However, for the workers’ compensation system to work effectively, injured employees must be compensated appropriately rather than excessively. The quotes above indicate that, in the eyes of the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals, a doctor’s determination that a claimant can perform sedentary or medium duty work might actually mean the claimant cannot work at all; impairment findings by the fact finder, the Workers’ Compensation Commission, may be subject to change at the appellate level; and a 46% impairment rating can warrant lifetime benefits.

The Courts’ apparent continued willingness to disregard the “substantial evidence” standard of review5 and reach its own findings of fact is troublesome for the future of workers’ compensation claims. The threat of proceeding to a hearing as a tool to negotiate reasonable settlements loses value for all sides because of the fear that our appellate system may make findings of fact on their own contrary to the Commission. There is also the threat that this line of recent opinions will create a snowball effect, more so than there already is, for an influx of questionable claims by employees who have heard their coworkers’ success stories in incidents like the cases referenced above. Only time will tell the result of these opinions. One thing is for sure, employers and their counsel should think long and hard in making the decision to appeal past the Full Commission.

1 Dent v. E. Richland Cty. Pub. Serv. Dist., 423 S.C. 193, 204, 813 S.E.2d 886, 891 (Ct. App. 2018).
2 Clemmons v. Lowe's Home Ctrs., Inc.-Harbison, 420 S.C. 282, 288, 803 S.E.2d 268, 271 (2017).
3 Foran v. Murphy USA, 420 S.C. 377, 385-86, 803 S.E.2d 311, 316 (Ct. App. 2017).
4 Fragosa v. Kade Constr., LLC, 2018 S.C. Unpub. LEXIS 28.
5 Clemmons, 420 S.C. at 287, 803 S.E.2d at 270.