This Week’s South Carolina Supreme Court Opinions

scsctYesterday the Supreme Court of South Carolina published three opinions that concerned criminal law and worker’s compensation.

State v. Nesbitt involves an appeal from the Sparatanburg County Circuit Court on the issue of “whether a negotiated plea agreement involving multiple charges is invalid when the defendant does not enter knowing and voluntary pleas for all of the charges contained in the agreement.”

Nesbitt was charged with four crimes:  murder, possession of a firearm during the commission of a violent crime, attempted murder, and attempted armed robbery.  He negotiated a plea agreement.  While in court, he pled guilty to three counts.  The State inadvertently forgot to include the firearm charge, and the Solicitor remembered this only after Nesbitt had already left the courtroom.  The judge examined the plea agreement and then sentenced Nesbitt to 5 years for the firearm charge even though Nesbitt was not present in the courtroom to plead guilty to this charge.  Since the firearm sentence was to run concurrently with the three other sentences, Nesbitt would serve no additional time.

Nesbitt appealed, arguing that his plea to the firearm charge was invalid and that he had not given up his constitutional rights with respect to that charge.  The Supreme Court acknowledged the validity of Nesbitt’s concern but concluded that the lower court’s error has caused Nesbitt to suffer no prejudice.  Consequently the Court affirmed the decision.

In Nicholson v. DSS and Barnes v. Charter Realty, the Court dealt with worker’s compensation cases and the statutory requirement that such an injury “aris[e]ing out of and in the course of employment.”

The Supreme Court of South Carolina reversed the South Carolina Court of Appeals in Nicholson v. DSS.  Nicolson, an employee of DSS, fell in the hallway of DSS while on her way to a meeting.  Her foot became entangled in carpet, causing her to fall and suffer injuries to her neck, shoulder and side.  She filed for worker’s compensation under South Carolina Code of Laws Section 42-1-160(a.)

Initially a single worker’s compensation commissioner denied Nicholson’s claim, concluding that it did not arise out of employment as required by the statute as there “…was nothing specific to the floor at DSS…and she could have fallen anywhere.”  A panel of worker’s compensation commissioners then reversed the single commissioner.  This panel was then reversed by the Court of Appeals.

Consequently the South Carolina Supreme Court defined the issue before it as whether “…an injury arise[s] out of a claimant’s employment when she falls while carrying out a task for her employer, but there is no evidence that a specific danger or hazard of the work caused the fall?”

Analyzing the requirement that the injury “arise out of and in the course of employment,” the Supreme Court of South Carolina reversed the Court of Appeals and reinstated Nicholson’s worker’s compensation award.  The Court concluded that “[a]lleging an accident is not unique to employment, without more, is not a viable basis for denying compensation.”  The Court stated that the “…court of appeals erred in requiring claimant to prove the existence of a hazard or danger because it erroneously injected fault into worker’s compensation law.  The Worker’s Compensation Act was designed to supplant tort law by providing a no-fault system focusing on quick recovery….”

The Court faced a similar issue in Barnes v. Charter Realty.    Again this case involved a fall that occurred while the employee, Judy Barnes, was walking down the hallway at her employer’s office.  She was on her way to check email for her boss when she tripped and fell, suffering both a broken left leg and arm as well as a torn rotator cuff.  Her fall did not appear to be precipitated by an internal condition but the worker’s compensation commission concluded that her fall was idiopathic and not compensable.  This decision was affirmed by the Court of Appeals.

The issues before the court were whether Barnes’ fall was idiopathic and whether her injuries “arose out of and in the course of her employment.”  Concluding that her injury was not idiopathic and that it did indeed arise out of the course of her employment, the Supreme Court of South Carolina reversed the Court of Appeals.  The Court strictly construed the idiopathic doctrine announcing that an “…idiopathic fall is one that is ‘brought on by a purely personal condition unrelated to employment, such as heart attack or seizure.’…The idiopathic fall doctrine is based on the notion that an idiopathic injury does not stem from an accident, but is brought on by a condition particular to the employee that could have manifested itself anywhere.”  The Court also stated that an “…injury arises out of employment if it is proximately caused by the employment….For an injury to arise out of employment, there must be a causal connection between the conditions under which the work is required to be performed and the resulting injury.”  Barnes was performing a work task while at work when she tripped and fell.  Her fall was not idiopathic.  As a matter of law, the court concluded that her injuries arose out of the course of her employment.

About Lisa Smith-Butler

Associate Professor of Law Charleston School of Law 385 Meeting St., Suite 322B Charleston, S.C. 29403 843.377.2144
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