Beckman v. Sysco Columbia – Multiple SC Work Injuries Considered Under Loss of Earning Capacity Law

Anderson workers’ compensation attorneys are familiar with the fact that a single work-related injury to a “scheduled member” (ie., body part) is typically assigned a disability award based on a pre-determined amount.
South Carolina Code 42-9-30 spells out the various schedule of awards based on which body part was injured. So for example, the loss of a thumb entitles a worker to 66 percent and two-thirds average weekly wages for 65 weeks. Meanwhile, the loss of the fourth finger entitles a worker to 66 percent and two-thirds weekly wages for 20 weeks. The loss of an arm entitles a worker to 66 and two-thirds wage compensation for 220 weeks. The list goes on.

However, if a worker sustains injury to more than one body part, this schedule is not to be used. The reasoning South Carolina courts have found (specifically in the 2003 ruling in Wigfall v. Tideland Utilities Inc.) is that when a worker can show additional injuries beyond a lone scheduled injury, it is a common-sense fact that the combined disabling effect may be far greater than the arithmetical total of scheduled allowances. For these workers, the courts have held, compensation needs to be based on total loss of earnings capacity, as spelled out in South Carolina Code 42-9-20.

These were the grounds upon which the South Carolina Court of Appeals recently reversed an earlier finding in favor of the employer in Beckman v. Sysco Columbia LLC. The employer had argued the disability impairment level should be determined according to the listed schedule, while the worker argued for broader interpretation afforded by the total loss of earnings capacity.

The worker, a delivery driver, was hurt in the spring of 2010 as he loaded a hand truck for his employer. He indicated he had pulled muscles in his back, his buttocks, both legs and also in his right foot.

The employer conceded the back injury, but denied it was responsible for compensation for the rest of his injuries.

The worker was authorized to receive medical care, and also underwent an independent examination.

At a later workers’ compensation hearing, a single commissioner determined the worker suffered 35 percent permanent loss of the use of his spine, noting his own doctor’s 15 percent combined impairment rating for both his back and sacroiliac joint, while the independent doctor assigned an 8 percent impairment rating for both. The commissioner ordered the employer to pay the worker a lump sum, minus whatever it had already paid for temporary disability compensation (which had been $690 weekly).

The worker appealed, arguing the commissioner had wrongly-applied the single-member schedule, when he had provided ample evidence of multiple injuries. While an appellate panel and the circuit court backed the commissioner, the South Carolina Court of Appeals reversed.

First of all, the court noted, the guiding principle in the state’s workers’ compensation system is to be liberally construed in favor of the worker. That doesn’t mean that decisions for award can be based on mere speculation. There has be a reasonable basis, supported by the evidence.

The court noted there was evidence introduced that the work-related injury had resulted in impairment to more than one listed body part. Thus, the way the commissioner determined benefits was incorrect.

The case has been remanded back to the commissioner for further proceedings.

If you have been injured at work in South Carolina, contact the Lee Law Offices in Anderson at 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:
Beckman v. Sysco Columbia LLC, March 19, 2014, South Carolina Court of Appeals

More Blog Entries:
Wingfield v. Hill Bros. Transp. – Proving Legal and Medical Causation in Work Injuries, May 27, 2014, Anderson Workers’ Compensation Lawyer Blog

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