Workers’ Compensation Claimant’s Ability to Work Was Not, Alone, Dispositive of Permanent and Total Disability Under South Carolina Law

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When an employee is hurt on the job, and a permanent injury results, he or she is usually assigned an “impairment rating” under the American Medical Association’s Guides to Permanent Physical Impairment.

The workers’ compensation commission – and the court, if the matter proceeds further through an appeal – uses the rating and other factors in determining the amount of permanent partial disability benefits to which an employee is entitled.

The Guides can also be used to establish an employee’s permanent total disability for the purposes of workers’ compensation law.

Facts of the Case

In a recent workers’ compensation case, the plaintiff was a man who slipped and fell while waiting on a customer at work in 2010. After being diagnosed with a herniated disc that caused severe spinal cord compression that necessitated surgery, the plaintiff filed a workers’ compensation claim. The defendant employer admitted that the plaintiff had suffered a compensable injury and agreed to pay him temporary total disability benefits until he reached a point of maximum medical improvement (MMI) or returned to work.

After the plaintiff reached MMI, a single commissioner ruled that the employee had sustained a 48% injury to his back and was entitled to an award of permanent partial disability. The full commission agreed and affirmed the single commissioner’s order. The court of appeals also affirmed, leading the plaintiff to seek a writ of certiorari to review the court of appeals’ decision.

The Issue

Does a workers’ compensation claimant’s ability to work affect his entitlement to disability benefits under the “scheduled member” section of the South Carolina Workers’ Compensation Act?

The Decision of the Supreme Court of South Carolina

The court reversed, holding that there was no evidence that the plaintiff had suffered anything less than a 50% impairment to his back. In so holding, the court noted that every doctor and medical professional who assigned an impairment rating to the plaintiff under the Guides had stated that he had lost more than 70% of the use of his back.

According to the court, “all of the medical evidence in the record points to only one conclusion,” namely that the employee had suffered more than 50% loss of the use of his back and was thus presumptively permanently and totally disabled. The court further opined that the defendant had failed to rebut the presumption of the plaintiff’s permanent and total disability. This was true even though there was evidence that the plaintiff retained the ability to work in a different job from that which he held pre-injury. In the court’s opinion, “to allow a workers’ compensation claimant’s ability to work to rebut the presumption of total and permanent disability would have the undesirable effect of discouraging claimants from returning to the workforce.”

Talk to a Lawyer

There are many issues to be decided in a workers’ compensation case. To increase the chances of a worker receiving all of the benefits to which he or she is entitled under the law, it is advisable that he or she retain an attorney as soon as possible after being hurt at work. An experienced South Carolina workers’ compensation lawyer at the Patrick E. Knie Law Offices is here to help. For your free consultation, call (864) 582-5118 and schedule an appointment in our Spartanburg or Greenville offices.

Related Blog Posts:

South Carolina Supreme Court Adopts “Divided Premises” Rule in Workers’ Compensation Case

South Carolina Court Holds that Estate’s Entitlement to Worker’s Permanent Total Disability Benefits Was Not Dependent on Finding of Maximum Medical Improvement