Federal Court Certifies Questions of Law to South Carolina Supreme Court in Worker’s Third-Party Negligence Action: What, if Anything, Should the Jury Be Told About Companion Workers’ Compensation Claim?

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When an employee is hurt at work, he or she is usually limited to benefits available under the workers’ compensation laws. Such benefits typically include past and future medical care, temporary disability, or permanent disability payments. Under the “exclusive remedy doctrine,” the employee cannot file a traditional negligence lawsuit against his or her employer.

However, when a worker is hurt due to a third party’s negligent conduct, he or she has the option of proceeding in tort against the responsible party. (The employee may be required to repay amounts received from workers’ compensation if the third-party claim is successful.)  Such cases can be complex, especially if the employer also contributed to the cause of the accident. A recent case is illustrative.

Facts of the Case

Late last month, the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina certified several questions of law pertaining to the issues in a work-related, third-party negligence lawsuit filed in federal court. In the underlying case, the plaintiff was a man who was allegedly injured in 2010 due to inhalation of chemical products while he was performing his work duties. He collected workers’ compensation benefits due to his injuries.

In 2012, the plaintiff filed a negligence lawsuit in federal court against the international company that sold the chemicals and several other defendants. Due to the exclusive remedy doctrine, his employer was not a party to the federal action. The case proceeded to a jury trial that ultimately resulted in a defense verdict. The plaintiff filed a motion for a new trial, asserting that the federal court had erred in not instructing the jury concerning his workers’ compensation case while, at the same time, allowing the defendants to argue the “empty chair” defense, casting the blame for the accident on the plaintiff’s employer (which was immune from liability other than for benefits due under workers’ compensation).

Certified Questions from the Federal Court

The federal court determined that South Carolina law was unclear on the issues presented by the plaintiff’s motion and thereafter certified four questions of law to the South Carolina Supreme Court. In answering the certified questions, the state supreme court considered both the South Carolina Workers’ Compensation Act and the South Carolina Uniform Contribution Among Tortfeasors Act.

After considering the statutory schemes, the court suggested that the jury be instructed to the effect that the employee was prohibited from suing his employer in the federal court, that the employer’s responsibility for paying workers’ compensation benefits had been (or would be) determined in a separate forum, and that the employer’s alleged fault could be considered only in determining whether the plaintiff had met his burden of proof against the named defendants.

The court went on to decide that the jury could not assign a percentage of fault to the employer because it was the legislative intent of South Carolina Code § 15-38-15(C) to allocate fault only among parties to a lawsuit. While a nonparty “potential tortfeasor” could be included in this allocation, an employer that was immune from suit under the South Carolina Workers’ Compensation Act was not a nonparty to which fault could be assigned.

In so holding, the court made it clear that the amount of workers’ compensation benefits paid to the plaintiff was inadmissible in the federal court third-party tort action.

Talk to a Seasoned South Carolina Work Injury Lawyer

As this case illustrates, lawsuits involving on-the-job injuries can sometimes be complex and may even involve multiple lawsuits, especially when someone other than the employer may have caused the accident at issue. At the Patrick E. Knie Law Offices in Spartanburg and Greenville, we are experienced in handling a wide array of issues in South Carolina work injury cases. For a free consultation, call us today at 864-582-5118.

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