Without Evidence of Fornication or Illicit Relationship, South Carolina Woman Who Claimed to Be Deceased Worker’s Common Law Wife Might Qualify for Death Benefits

Some South Carolina workers’ compensation cases involve the issue of whether a particular injury was work-related or whether the employer has a valid defense against the employee’s claim. Sometimes, however, the real fight is not between the employer and employee, but between other parties. For instance, this can happen when a worker dies as a result of an on-the-job accident, and multiple parties seek death benefits.

Facts of the Case

The plaintiff in a recently decided appellate case was the brother and personal representative of the estate of a man who died when his boat capsized in a pond during a work-related accident in 2013. The plaintiff filed a Form 52 notice of a claim for death benefits a few months after the accident that took the worker’s life. A hearing was held, during which the plaintiff sought workers’ compensation benefits on behalf of the deceased worker’s mother, as next of kin under South Carolina Code § 42-9-140(B). Another claimant sought benefits for herself as the deceased worker’s alleged common law wife or, alternatively, as a dependent.

A single commissioner found that the mother was entitled to the full sum of death benefits available under the South Carolina Workers’ Compensation Act, holding that the other claimant had failed to prove a common law marriage by a preponderance of the evidence. Instead, the single commissioner characterized the relationship at issue as “liv[ing] together off and on in a tumultuous relationship.” Although the commissioner noted that the claimant had shown financial dependence on the deceased worker, he found that this was not determinative of the outcome of the case.

The Appellate Panel of the South Carolina Workers’ Compensation Commission affirmed.

Decision of the South Carolina Court of Appeals

The appellate court reversed and remanded. The lower tribunals had based their holdings, in part, on the fact that the alleged common law wife and the deceased worker had violated South Carolina’s law against fornication. The appellate court agreed with the alleged wife that this was improper because there was no evidence of acts of fornication nor were there any convictions for fornication. The appellate court also found that it was an error for the workers’ compensation commissioner to deny the purported wife’s claim based on prior case law (to the effect that individuals cannot be dependents under the Act if they are involved in an illicit relationship) when no evidence of an illicit relationship had been presented.

On remand, the appellate panel was ordered to determine whether, based on the evidence in the record, the alleged common law wife qualified as a dependent under the Act.

Speak to a Helpful South Carolina Work Injury Lawyer

If you or a loved one has been hurt on the job, you need to understand your legal rights. At the Patrick E. Knie Law Offices in Greenville and Spartanburg, we help people who have been victims of a work injury seek maximum compensation. For a free consultation, call us now at 864-582-5118.

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