South Carolina Appeals Court Agrees that Radio Communications Worker’s Fatal Heart Attack is Compensable for Purposes of Workers’ Compensation

A South Carolina workers’ compensation case can be very challenging. Even though these laws were purportedly put in place to protect employees and their families against financial hardship due to a work-related injury or death, many workers’ compensation insurance companies will fight hard to avoid paying a claim.

There are several levels of review in such matters, beginning with the decision of a single commissioner and ending in the state supreme court. Most contested cases are settled or otherwise resolved somewhere along this lengthy process.

Facts of the Case

The plaintiff in a recent (unreported) case decided by the South Carolina Court of Appeals was the surviving spouse of a 58-year-old man who worked for the defendant county in its radio and telecommunications department. In September 2014, a criminal suspect barricaded himself in an apartment, leading to a nine-hour standoff that involved over 100 first responders. Two officers were shot during the altercation, and one died. The suspect also died as a result of a gunfire exchange with deputies. The decedent suffered an apparent heart attack while monitoring the county’s radio system during the standoff. He died a short time later.

A single commissioner ruled that the decedent’s heart attack was compensable under South Carolina’s workers’ compensation laws, noting that the witnesses at the hearing all testified that the circumstances surrounding the standoff were “unusual” or “not typical.” The defendant insurance carrier was, accordingly, ordered to pay funeral benefits and 500 weeks of compensation benefits (commuted to a lump sum) to the widow. The full South Carolina Workers’ Compensation Commission affirmed the single commissioner’s ruling in favor of the widow.

The Appellate Court’s Decision

The court of appeals affirmed the Commission’s order, thereby agreeing with the single commissioner and the Commission that the decedent’s surviving spouse was entitled to workers’ compensation benefits on his behalf. The insurance carrier argued that the decedent’s injury and death were not compensable because they were not work-related, but the appellate court disagreed. Workers’ compensation laws are to be liberally construed in favor of providing coverage, and reasonable doubts concerning construction of the South Carolina Workers’ Compensation Act are to be resolved in favor of coverage.

Under the Act, a compensable injury generally does not include “diseases” (such as heart disease), but a heart attack is considered compensable if it is induced by “unexpected strain or overexertion” that occurs during a worker’s performance of his or her duties or by unusual and extraordinary conditions in his or her employment. Here, the decedent worked usually long hours during the standoff, “bore the heavy responsibility of keeping more than 100 first responders in communication” during a “unique emergency situation,” and experienced the death of a deputy in the line of duty during the standoff. Thus, in the court’s opinion, there was substantial evidence to support the lower tribunal’s finding that the decedent’s death occurred during “unusual and extraordinary circumstances” and was compensable.

Speak to a South Carolina Work Injury Lawyer

Losing a loved one due to an on-the-job accident is painful enough without having to fight for the right to receive funeral costs and death benefits on the loved one’s behalf. If you need to talk to an experienced Spartanburg or Greenville workers’ compensation lawyer, call the Patrick E. Knie Law Offices today at 864-582-5118. Please do not delay in seeking legal advice about any workers compensation, wrongful death, or personal injury matter, as there are strict deadlines that, if not complied with, can result in dismissal of your claim.

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