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The Phoenix Rises!!

Robert Gruber

The South Carolina Court of Appeals recently revisited the issue of so-called “unexplained” falls in the context of workers’ compensation – a topic that has received considerable attention from our courts in recent years.  In Turner v. SAIIA, the Court of Appeals affirmed the Commission’s denial of benefits where, although there was no doubt the claimant fell on the job site, he could not explain how or why he fell.  This result is clearly favorable to employers and insurance carriers in our state.  It also runs somewhat counter to other recent court decisions that arguably expanded the scope of compensable slip and fall accidents.

For instance, many believe the South Carolina Supreme Court’s decision in Nicholson v. DSS effectively killed the “arises out of employment” element of compensability. As the reader is probably aware, an award of compensability in South Carolina requires both that an injury arise out of and in the course of the claimant’s employment.  These are two separate elements that a claimant is required to prove.  “In the course of” refers to the time and place of the accident, while “arising out of” requires a causal connection to the claimant’s work activity.  However, in Nicholson, the South Carolina Supreme Court concluded, “because Nicholson’s fall happened at work and was not caused by a condition peculiar to her, it was causally connected to her employment. Therefore, her injuries arose out of her employment as a matter of law and she is entitled to workers’ compensation.”  This decision appears to have created a presumption that an injury occurring at work arises out of work, and leaves it up to the defendant to prove that the injury was caused by some internal breakdown (idiopathic) or that the injury was simply caused by something else that was totally unrelated to work.  Ms. Nicholson did not recall what caused her fall.  She denied tripping on anything; she testified that the files she was carrying had nothing to do with her fall; she denied slipping.  And to her credit, she was very honest about truly not knowing why she fell.  It isn’t hard to see how this new “if it happened at work, it was caused by work” approach could greatly expand the menu of compensable claims.

This brings us to the recent Turner case, in which the Court of Appeals reached the opposite conclusion from the court in Nicholson. Mr. Turner was at work on April 19, 2012 when he was found lying on his back next to his dump truck. Turner had no memory or recollection as to what he was doing right before he fell or why he fell, and there were no witnesses or other evidence presented regarding the circumstances of Mr. Turner’s fall. The parties presented conflicting evidence of what the claimant was doing right before he was found prone beside his truck; however, the Single and Full Commission weighed the evidence, found the employer’s witnesses and evidence more credible, and found that Turner failed to meet his burden of proving that his injury arose out of his employment.

The Court of Appeals analyzed the “arising out of employment” element at length.  The Court reminds us that for an injury to be compensable in South Carolina, it must actually arise out of employment, which means that there must be some “causal connection” between the claimant’s work conditions and the resulting injury.  Even unexplained falls, the Court notes, must have some causal connection to a claimant’s work.  The Court of Appeals went on to distinguish this case from Nicholson by writing “here, unlike in… Nicholson, we cannot determine what Turner was doing at the time of his alleged accident. Although Turner was at work when he fell, no evidence indicates his employment contributed to the cause of his fall.”

Nicholson currently remains the law of the land, and it is yet to be seen whether Turner will make its way to the South Carolina Supreme Court.  In the meantime, it appears “arisen” is rising, and we will not be surprised to see the Supreme Court tackle this issue yet again in the not too distant future.