The South Carolina Court of Appeals recently affirmed workers’ compensation death benefits awarded to the surviving spouse of a deceased worker who died after suffering an aneurysm while driving a tour bus for defendant.
Employer argued the grant of benefits was an error because worker’s death was caused by an idiopathic injury and further, decedent’s wife wasn’t actually his spouse because he was already married to someone else when he married her. Appellate court rejected these arguments in its decision in Thomas v. 5 Star Transportation.
According to court records, worker was a tour bus driver who, on Nov. 19, 2007, lost control of the bus and collided with a tree. He was pronounced dead at the scene. Witnesses described him as slumped over and unresponsive prior to careening off the road. A doctor who performed the autopsy determined worker died as a result of full body trauma complicating a ruptured brain aneurysm.
Twelve years earlier, the worker had married his first wife. The pair did not have any children together. However, four years after that union, worker met and soon after began living with another woman, claimant in this case. The pair lived together for about eight years and, roughly a year before his death, had a marriage ceremony. Decedent told his new wife a few days before the ceremony that he and his ex-wife were divorced. However, the divorce wasn’t actually final until a few months after the wedding to his second wife, who did not learn about the timing until after worker’s death.
Less than a year after he died, his second wife filed a claim for workers’ compensation death benefits, which employer denied on grounds he had not sustained a work-related injury. It also denied benefits on grounds her marriage to worker was void. The South Carolina Uninsured Employers Fund also denied the claim, citing lack of a work injury.
Later, the doctor who performed the autopsy noted there were so many different fatal injuries that occurred at the moment of the crash that it was difficult to sort out which one would have “made him more dead.” She indicated the injuries he suffered as a result of the crash were not survivable, and included numerous multiple fractures and bleeding. She did state the aneurysm, with a reasonable degree of medical certainty, was not likely the cause of his death, as two-thirds of patients who suffer the same condition survive and half are “fine.” Most likely, she stated, he died as a result of injuries sustained in the crash.
A single commissioner conducted a hearing, but found the marriage to his second wife did not “ripen into a common law marriage” upon his divorce from his previous wife. Thus, the commissioner granted defendants’ motion for summary judgment.
Appellate panel reversed, finding the court violated certain procedural elements, and the case was remanded. Upon remand, a different single commissioner determined decedent’s fatal injuries were compensable as the injuries arose out of an in the course and scope of his employment, and further the claimant was his common-law wife at the time of his death. Per the putative spouse doctrine, she was entitled to all rights, benefits and privileges of a surviving spouse.
That finding was upheld by the appellate panel for the commission, as well as the state appellate court.
If you have been injured at work, contact the Lee Law Offices at 800-887-1965.
Thomas v. 5 Star Transportation, Feb. 18, 2015, South Carolina Court of Appeals
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