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South Carolina Supreme Court Clarifies ‘Total Disability’ Workers’ Comp Rules

On March 8, 2017, the South Carolina Supreme Court issued a ruling in Clemmons v. Lowe’s Home Centers, Inc. The high court held an injured employee’s ability to work, without any other evidence, cannot prevent workers’ compensation total disability benefits for a severe back injury under the scheduled-loss law.

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

The Facts of the Case

Clemmons worked at Lowe’s. While helping a customer, he slipped and fell, severely hurting his back. He got 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 he 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 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 him 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.

Long story short: Clemmons lost but never quit. He lost the hearing and then two appeals before his case finally reached the Supreme Court.

Supreme Court Ruling Leaves No Doubt

In a 4-1 decision, the Supreme Court basically determined all other courts—with all respect to them —got it just plain wrong about Clemmons’ disability level, even though he had 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.
  • While the presumption of total disability can be defeated, “the mere fact” an injured employee keeps working doesn’t defeat total disability.

Why the Reasoning Should Encourage Employees and Employers

Maybe the best part of the ruling is the reason for it. The court proclaimed excluding employees from total disability because they return to work “would have the undesirable effect of discouraging claimants from returning to the workforce.”

The court also carefully pointed out that saying Clemmons fully returned to work just wasn’t true, since “his duties were significantly reduced in light of his condition.”

The court concluded, “We believe a claimant wanting to return to work and being willing to accept a less demanding position in order to do so is something to be commended, rather than to be used to deny him benefits.”

Do Your Best And Never Give Up

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 it 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.

If you want to know more about your rights or how a workers’ compensation 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 to answer your questions and inform you of your rights.


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