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The Neck Is Connected to the…Backbone: Workers’ Comp Total Disability Benefits for Severe Back and Neck Injuries

On June 28, 2017, the South Carolina Supreme Court issued a ruling in Clemmons v. Lowe’s Home Centers, Inc. The high court ruling illustrates how workers’ compensation law presumes total disability for injured employees who lose over 50% use of their backs. That means the hurt worker can get the most extensive (and expensive) benefits available under comp. But you might be shocked to learn the court also pointed out the back actually includes the neck.

Let’s take a closer look at the facts, the law, and the critical reason for the ruling.

The Facts in the Case

Clemmons worked at Lowe’s. While helping a customer, he slipped and fell, severely hurting his neck. He was diagnosed with a herniated disc with severe spinal cord compression, requiring immediate surgery. A surgeon removed the busted disc, fusing two neck vertebrae together by screwing a rod into his spine. Despite extensive follow-up treatment and therapy, Clemmons continued to hurt in his neck and back, and found it hard to keep balance and walk.

When Clemmons reached maximum medical improvement, his surgeon assigned him a whole-person permanent impairment rating of 25% to his cervical (neck) spine, which converts to 71% impairment to the spine, or back.

The doctor allowed him to return to work, but with extensive permanent restrictions: no standing or walking more than an hour at a time, no stairs, no reaching overhead repeatedly, and no lifting more than 30 pounds.

Lowe’s requested a hearing to determine whether it owed Clemmons permanent disability. Before that, Clemmons saw a number of medical professionals, who all gave even higher impairment ratings than his surgeon. At the hearing, Clemmons asserted he should get total permanent disability benefits because he lost more than 50% of his back. Lowe’s fought that, arguing his return to work showed he’d lost less than that, so they owed only partial benefits.

To make a long story short, Clemmons lost but never quit. He lost the hearing, then two appeals, before it finally reached the Supreme Court.

Supreme Court Ruling Leaves No Doubt

The Supreme Court basically determined all other courts—with all respect to them—just got it plain wrong about Clemmons’ disability level, even though he returned to work on a limited basis.

The court made two important rulings:

  • All medical evidence “points to only one conclusion”: Clemmons lost over 50% of his back. Thus, the workers’ compensation law presumed him permanently and totally disabled for his on-the-job back injury. Luckily, Clemmons had the help of an experienced workers’ compensation attorney who knew to link Clemmons’ spinal neck injury to the comp law for back injuries. This gave Clemmons access to the right to recover the best benefits under workers’ comp.
  • The war’s not over yet. The presumption of total disability can be defeated. The Supreme Court sent the case back to the workers’ compensation commission to determine whether Lowe’s could defeat the presumption. Clemmons remains lucky to have a skilled attorney on his side to help prevent him from losing his right to total disability benefits.

Moral Of The Story: Do Your Best, Never Give Up…and Protect Yourself!

If you’ve suffered a severe work injury, you owe it to yourself, your family, and even the world to do all you can to bounce back and return to work—even if you can’t do what you did before.

But as you’ve seen, you also can’t let a setback stop you from pursuing the maximum possible benefits to help you physically and financially in the only chance you’ll ever have to protect your rights. And you certainly can’t risk going it alone: that way, you might give up rights to huge benefits you don’t know about. The law and insurance companies can be extremely unforgiving on those who don’t know better. Don’t let that be you.

If you want to know more about your rights or how a workers’ comp case works, check out the other articles on our site and always feel free to email or live chat right where you are. You can also always call us at (888) 230-1841 or (864) 582-0416 for a free, no-obligation phone call or meeting.

 

Rob Usry
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Rob is a South Carolina personal injury and criminal defense lawyer.

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