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Thomas v. 5 Star Transportation – Fatal Work Crash, Common-Law Spousal Entitlement, Disputed

When it comes to workers’ compensation law, states have varying applications with regard to disputed issues. In general, though, what must be proven is the injury or illness was caused or compounded by work-related duties or functions, and that the individual seeking to collect has legal standing to do so.
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A recent case before the South Carolina Court of Appeals posed some interesting issues with regard to these elements, but the claimant still prevailed.

In Thomas v. 5 Star Transportation, claimant was the widow of a worker who died in a traffic accident while driving a tour bus for his employer. But the case was complicated by two central facts:

  • The worker had suffered a brain aneurysm around the time of his death, though it could not definitively be proven it happened before the crash.
  • The woman who sought spousal benefits was not in fact married to decedent, as his divorce to his previous was not final at the time of their wedding – a fact she didn’t learn until after he died.

Yet, claimant was able to succeed in securing workers’ compensation death benefits, but it didn’t come without a vigorous fight by the employer.

According to court records, decedent was employed as a tour bus driver for defendant when, in November 2007, he suddenly careened off the road and slammed into a tree. Just prior to the crash, witnesses say he slumped over and was unresponsive. The official cause of death listed by medical examiner was full body blunt trauma, complicated by a ruptured aneurysm in the brain.

Soon after, his wife filed for workers’ compensation death benefits. But her claim was denied when the employer asserted the worker’s death was idiopathic, not work-related, and further the “widow” was not actually married to decedent. True, they had a wedding ceremony a year previous, and they had been together for eight years prior. However, his divorce from his previous wife was not finalized until four months after the ceremony – unbeknownst to his new wife.

Still, she pressed forward with the claim. The medical examiner testified in deposition there were many injuries sustained by decedent that were not survivable, including numerous broken bones and severe bleeding. She stated the aneurysm wasn’t likely to have killed him, but it wasn’t possible to say whether it happened before or after that wreck. Anecdotal evidence might suggest that was what caused him to leave the roadway, but it could not be stated for certain. With a reasonable degree of medical certainty, however, she stated it was the injuries sustained in the collision that killed him.

At a single commissioner hearing of the matter, the commissioner determined claimant’s marriage had not “ripened into a common law marriage” following the divorce of his previous wife, and dismissed the claim on those grounds.

However, an appellate panel reversed, finding it violated state statute on procedural grounds. The case was ordered back to a different commissioner for another review.

That review resulted in a finding that decedent sustained a fatal compensable injury out of and in the scope of employment as a driver for defendant company, and further that claimant was indeed the common-law wife of decedent, meaning she was entitled to all rights, benefits and privileges of a surviving spouse.

An appellate panel affirmed this order, as did the South Carolina Court of Appeals.

In its review, the appellate court rejected defendant argument that it was the aneurysm that caused worker’s death, in which case the cause would have been idiopathic rather than work-related. As in Georgia, workers’ compensation law is to be construed largely in favor of the worker. An aneurysm in and of itself wouldn’t necessarily be considered a compensable injury unless it was brought about by unexpected strain or overexertion related to work duties or extraordinary conditions of employment. However in this case, it wasn’t the aneurysm that was found to have killed him – it was the accident. And there was no dispute that at the time of the crash, decedent was working. Defendant presented no evidence to prove worker’s death was a result of the aneurysm, and not the wreck.

As for the common-law marriage issue, the court ruled that while the union was not converted to a common-law marriage immediately upon finalization of decedent’s divorce, claimant was affirmed to be the surviving spouse because they entered into the marriage with a good faith belief they could marry and continued to act as husband and wife after the divorce was finalized.

For information on Atlanta work injury compensation, contact J. Franklin Burns, P.C., at 1-404-303-7770.

Additional Resources:
Thomas v. 5 Star Transportation, Feb. 18, 2015, South Carolina Court of Appeals
More Blog Entries:
Morales v. Zenith Ins. Co. – 11th Circuit Affirms Exclusive Remedy Provision, Feb. 10, 2015, Atlanta Workers’ Compensation Lawyer Blog