In the opinion for a recent workers’ compensation appeal, Brown v. Peoplease, the South Carolina Court of Appeals gives us an opportunity to review both the lax standard of review that workers’ compensation cases receive upon review to the courts and the informal nature of appeals from the initial single commissioner Workers’ Compensation Commission to the Appellate Panel (of the Workers’ Compensation Commission).
Brown v. Peoplease involved a relatively common incident: a car accident on the job. Peoplease had arranged for Brown to drive a truck for the Bulldog trucking company when Brown’s truck was hit by a passenger car (Note that since this is a workers’ compensation case, Brown’s negligence, if any, is not at issue, as it would be in an ordinary car accident case).
Peoplease’s attorneys did not contest that the injuries suffered in the accident were compensable injuries under the workers’ compensation statute. The issues at the hearing were what Brown’s compensation rate should be and the extent if any of Brown’s permanent disabilities.
Compensation rates are usually determined by dividing the total wages paid over the last four quarters by the lesser of 52 or the actual number of weeks worked, except when this method would be unfair. S.C. Code Ann. §42-1-40. Since Brown had only been working for Peoplease for 16 weeks when the accident occurred, this method was inappropriate, and Brown and Peoplease presented evidence and testimony to establish the compensation rate. The testimony of Peoplease’s corporate lawyer, who relied on her review of similar Peoplease employee’s pay rates ($26,000 to $38,500), and Brown, who offered his recollection of what he was offered at the outset of his employment conflicted ($0.50 per mile). Peoplease offered no documentary evidence, and Brown offered only his paystubs, which were of limited use because his pay rate on the stubs was “$1/hour,” far outside of the range that either party was arguing. Given this evidence, the single commissioner, as fact-finder, set the compensation rate at the highest figure cited by Peoplease, below the $0.50 per mile, Brown said he was offered.
Causation of Specific Back Injuries
Employers in workers’ compensation are only liable for injuries caused by accident on the job. Throughout Brown’s case and in doctor’s letters and notes, references were made to his back and neck injuries generally. The only evidence specifying a particular portion of the back was evidence of what surgeries were done, which were on the cervical spine (except for vague reference of lumbar pain at the initial emergency room visit). Brown also claimed injury to his lumbar spine. The single commissioner cited that back injuries are complicated and that medical testimony must be offered to support specific back injuries and disabilities, and thus, he found that, since Brown offered no medical testimony establishing the cause of his lumbar issues was the accident, he was not entitled to lifetime medical expenses for his lumbar issues. Had the doctor been specifically asked separately about the cervical spine and the lumbar spine, the doctor might have said that the lumbar problems were caused by the accident. Since he wasn’t, the single commissioner denied claims based on Brown’s lumbar problems.
Standard of Review in Workers’ Compensation Appeals
As in all South Carolina workers’ compensation appeals to the South Carolina Court of Appeals, the standard of review is that the decision of the Appellate Panel of the Workers’ Compensation Commission will not be reversed unless there is an error of law or the decision is not supported by substantial evidence. S.C. Code Ann. § 1-23-380(5)(e). Substantial evidence means evidence that would allow a reasonable person to reach the same conclusion. Lark v. Bi-Lo, Inc., 276 S.C. 130, 135, 276 S.E.2d 304, 306. Since the evidence does not completely fly in the face of a finding that there was no causation evidence as to lumbar back injuries or the compensation rate determined by the commissioner, the Court of Appeals cannot reverse.
Appellate Panel’s Adoption of Proposed Order Drafted by Respondent Attorneys
Interestingly, Brown claims that the Appellate Panel erred in having the Respondents’ attorneys prepare a proposed order affirming the single commissioner’s decision, subject to specific instructions on what to write and the commissioners’ right to modify anything in it. The Court of Appeals found no issue with this practice and supported the propriety of the Appellate Panel’s decision by citing an opinion where no issue was found with an Appellate Panel adopting a single commissioner’s findings verbatim, Trotter v. Trane Coil Facility, 393 S.C. 637, 644, 714 S.E.2d 289, 292 (2011), and an opinion where a proposed order is merely mentioned, Matute v. Palmetto Health Baptist, 391 S.C. 291, 295, 705 S.E.2d 472, 474 (Ct. App. 2011).
Motion for Remand
Brown also claimed that the South Carolina Court of Appeals erred in denying a motion for leave to submit additional evidence under section 1-23-380(3) of the S.C. Administrative Procedures Act.
Brown had found a card he had been given before applying to work for Bulldog Trucking that offered 50¢ a mile and would have presumably been material evidence in calculating his compensation rate.
However, to be able to prevail on a motion for leave to submit additional evidence, there must be a showing not only of materiality, but also of good reason for failure to produce the evidence at the original hearing. Id. The Court of Appeals found that there was no such good reason, but even had they found that there a reason, the standard of review above would have applied. Thus, to reverse the Appellate Panel, the Court would have had to find an error of law or that the substantial evidence did not support the decision.
To download the entire Brown v. Peoplease SC Court of Appeals opinion, follow this link.