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Man fired minutes before injury awarded workers' comp benefits

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The following is a published account of a case handled by Christian and Davis as printed in Lawyers Weekly:

An Upstate construction worker who had been fired for alleged misconduct just minutes before he was run over by a truck was entitled to workers’ comp benefits, the Circuit Court has ruled. The accident happened as the claimant was headed for the jobsite’s exit gate after he was let go, according to an order recently reported to Lawyers Weekly by his attorney, Richard V. “Ric” Davis of Greenville. In an apparent first-impression decision, Circuit Judge J. Mark Hayes II said that the accident fell within the scope of employment despite the fact the claimant had been fired about 15 minutes prior.

Judge Hayes cited case law that provides for comp coverage where employees have stopped work for the day, but are still within a reasonable window of time and distance from their duties. “The fact that the employee was terminated for misconduct does not change the rule that coverage is provided for a reasonable period of time,” he wrote. “The employment status should be treated no differently than the employee who departs work for the day.”

The case is Reeves v. McConnell Builders, Inc. and Selective Ins. Co. (South Carolina Lawyers Weekly No. 008-001-07, 8 pages).

The employer’s attorney, Garth H. White of Charlotte, N.C., said he would have liked the Appeals Court to have heard the issue, but financial considerations weighed in favor of settling. “If the case had been worth more money, we probably would have taken it up,” White told Lawyers Weekly. The settlement was reached while an appeal was pending. He contended that the Workers’ Compensation Commission lacked jurisdiction. “Our first argument was the fact that there was no employee/employer relationship because that ended when he was fired. No one disputed the circumstances of the termination.” Instead, the claimant’s sole remedy should have been a tort claim against the owner of the jobsite, something the claimant also has pursued, according to White. “This guy would not have been left out in the cold because he has the remedy of tort even if he couldn’t get workers’ comp,” he said.

Background

The claimant, Christopher Reeves, was fired from his job as a laborer with McConnell Builders on Oct. 1, 2004. McConnell accused the claimant of misconduct at the recycling plant where he was working. The claimant walked to his work truck to gather his belongings and headed toward the gate in the fence around the property. Before he reached the exit, he was run over by a truck. The claimant suffered internal bruising, a fractured left ankle, injuries to his left leg, a contusion on his chest and various abrasions. He claimed he was unable to work again until Jan. 31, 2005. He sought benefits for the intervening time.

Ruling

In an order dated Dec. 2, 2006, Judge Hayes upheld an award of benefits from the single commissioner, which had been affirmed by the commission’s appellate panel. “The South Carolina Supreme Court has consistently held that the Workers’ Compensation Act provides coverage for an injury, under certain circumstances, beyond the strict confines of the time clock or specific job functions,” the order states.

Judge Hayes cited the case of Williams v. S.C. State Hospital, 245 S.C. 377 (1965), which held that an employee was entitled to comp benefits for an accident that happened within a reasonable time after the workday had ended.
The court also cited Holston v. Allied Corp., 30 S.C. 103 (Ct. App. 1989), which held that the going-and-coming rule did not apply where an injury occurred on premises controlled by the employer.

White said he thought that case law didn’t support coverage for the claimant in Reeves. “The commission and the Circuit Court relied on that, but I thought it was clearly factually distinguishable. Here, it was not actually the employer’s premises, so the employer didn’t have any way to maintain and control it,” he said.

White also said the fact the claimant’s employment relationship was severed permanently made the case different.

Judge Hayes disagreed and said the logic of the case law applied to Reeves, even though the claimant had been fired for misconduct. “To accept the argument of the defendants, this court would have to find, as a matter of law, that an employee who quits, is terminated, or simply retires, loses status under the act the very moment that the contractual relationship ends,” he wrote.

The next issue was whether the claimant’s injury happened within a reasonable time after his firing. The court said it did.

“There is no evidence of delay or loitering on the premises. It would be unreasonable to think that an employee, who had been accused of stealing, would be allowed to loiter or remain on the premises for any significant period of time under the circumstances,” the order states.

For more information on this subject matter, please refer to our section on Worksite Injury and Workers Compensation.