Today, February 18, 2015, the South Carolina Court of Appeals published two opinions: Trident Tech v. South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (SCDHEC) and Thomas v. 5 Star Transportation.
Before opening a new hospital facility, hospitals must go before the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) per the South Carolina State Health Plan, the South Carolina Ann. Reg. Section 61-15, and South Carolina Code of Laws section 44-7-130 to obtain a Certificate of Need (CON.) When awarding a CON, DHEC must consider the statutorily enumerated (South Carolina Code of Laws Section 44-7-110) criteria and evaluate. DHEC interpreted the South Carolina’s Bed Transfer Provision as allowing “…for approval of a CON application for the transfer of licensed general acute hospital beds to establish a new hospital.”
In this case, Trident submitted a request for a CON to build a new hospital facility in Berkeley County South Carolina in 2008. At the time, the population of Berkeley County was 158,140 but there were no hospital beds in the county. In late 2008, Roper St. Francis then applied to DHEC for a CON to transfer some of its beds at its downtown Charleston County facility to a new proposed facility in Berkeley County. DHEC conducted a project review for both the Roper and Trident applications and approved both for CONs. Trident objected and appealed to the ALC, arguing that DHEC improperly granted Roper a CON to transfer beds from its Charleston facility to a new facility in Berkeley County. Trident also argued that it and Roper were competing applicants, which meant per South Carolina Code of Laws 44-7-130(5), that the award of the CON should be awarded to the organization that most fully complied with CON criteria. Trident argued that DHEC was misinterpreting and misapplying the law in both instances. The ALC upheld DHEC’s position and interpretations. Trident then appealed to the Court of Appeals.
The Court of Appeals was asked to consider whether DHEC properly interpreted the Bed Transfer Provision and whether the ALC had erred in concluding that Roper and Trident were not competing applicants.
The Court concluded that the ALC properly deferred to DHEC’s interpretation, noting that courts “…defer to an agency interpretation unless it is ‘arbitrary, capricious, or manifestly contrary to the statute.'” The Court further concluded that Roper and Trident were not competing applicants for the CON. Instead it indicated that Roper was merely transferring beds from one facility to another to suit the needs of the local population as the statute required.
George Thomas was employed by 5 Star as a tour bus driver. On November 19, 2007, his bus left Interstate-26 and collided with a tree. George died. An autopsy performed on George was inconclusive as to cause of death. The coroner, Dr. Schandl, concluded that death resulted from both blunt trauma, i.e. the wreck, and an aneurysm that would have most likely been survivable were it not for the wreck. Schandl testified that George’s aneurysm could have occurred before or after the wreck and said “there are so many different fatal injuries at that moment of the crash that it’s kind of difficult to sort out which one would have made him more dead.”
Despite this testimony, 5 Star argued that George’s death resulted from the aneurysm and thus did not “arise out of and during the course of employment” as required by South Carolina Code of Laws Section 42-1-160. The Worker’s Compensation Commission disagreed, awarding survivor benefits to Emily Thomas. Because Emily and George were married before George’s divorce from another woman, Cynthia, was finalized, 5 Star then argued that Emily was not a surviving spouse within the meaning of South Carolina Code of Laws Section 42-1-175.
Examining the record before it, the Court concluded that the Commission had substantial evidence to support its finding that George’s death arose out of and in the course of his employment. Dr. Schandl’s testimony supported this conclusion.
However the Court concluded that the Commission misapplied the law of common law marriage regarding George and Emily. Since Emily was unaware of the fatal impediment, a previous marriage that had not yet been dissolved, until after George’s death, the Court concluded that “…George and Emily’s relationship was not converted to a common law marriage once the impediment to their marriage was removed.” After reviewing case-law, the Court found Emily to be George’s “…surviving spouse because she married George in good faith.” Citing Pierre v. Seaside Farms, the Court said “[t]he general policy in South Carolina is to construe the Worker’s Compensation Act in favor of coverage, and any reasonable doubts as to construction should be resolved in favor of the claimant.”