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Injured teacher may stack preexisting injuries, court holds

By PAUL THARP, Staff Writer

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A special needs teacher who injured her neck and back in 2002 when she was accidentally knocked into a chain-link fence and some tree roots can stack her work-related injury with personal ailments in order to determine the extent of her disability, the South Carolina Supreme Court has ruled.

The court’s opinion in Bartley v. Allendale County School District (Lawyers Weekly No. 010-059-11, 7 pp.), authored by Justice Donald W. Beatty, borrowed heavily from the court’s 2006 ruling in Ellison v. Frigidaire Home Products (Lawyers Weekly No. 010-155-06, 6 pp.).

In that case, as in Bartley, the court held that there was no requirement that the claimant demonstrate that a work-related injury had aggravated a preexisting condition or vice versa.

“The question to be considered was whether the combined effects of the condition and the workplace injury resulted in a greater disability than would otherwise have existed,” Beatty wrote.

In the Bartley case, the possibility of greater disability resulting from the stacking of what the court called “personal ailments” with Bartley’s workplace injury was real, so it reversed the opinion of a commissioner whose decision had been largely affirmed by an appellate panel, Allendale County Circuit Court Judge J. Ernest Kinard Jr. and the Court of Appeals.

“The commission’s decision was affected by an error of law,” Justice Beatty wrote. “It erred in concluding that Bartley was not allowed to ‘stack’ her ailments in order to determine her overall disability.”

The court remanded the case to the S.C. Workers’ Compensation Commission “for consideration of Bartley’s claims in light of [the Supreme Court’s] decision in Ellison.”

Charleston claimants’ attorney David L. Hoffman Jr. (pictured above), who was not involved in Bartley, said the opinion was a great result for injured workers across the state. 

“Many times people with preexisting conditions are working hard for their families and providing good service to their employers, but an accident renders them unable to work, especially in light of the combined effect of the accident and prior condition,” Hoffman said.

Hoffman added the decision recognizes that the combined effects of preexisting conditions and a work-related accident can have a significant impact on workers’ ability to function and provide income for their families.

Columbia attorney J. Russell Goudelock, who represents employers and carriers in workers’ compensation cases but who was not involved in Bartley, observed that the Court of Appeals and the Workers’ Compensation Commission focused on the issues of causation or whether the injuries of which Bartley complained that were ancillary to her neck injury were aggravated by her work-related injury.

But the Supreme Court focused on whether the combined effects of the conditions and the workplace injury resulted in a greater disability than would otherwise have existed.

The high court’s combination analysis, Goudelock said, is no longer applicable in cases involving injuries that occurred on or after July 1, 2007. That’s when workers’ compensation reforms “legislated” it away, he said.

The commission and the Court of Appeals’ analysis in Bartley may have stood a stronger chance of passing muster had the case involved a post-July 1, 2007 injury, Goudelock said.

But Bartley was injured in 2002, so the Commission should have applied the combination analysis, Goudelock said.

Attorneys for Bartley nor the Allendale County School District responded to Lawyers Weekly’s requests for comment.


Opinion Brief

Case name: Bartley v. Allendale County School District

Court: S.C. Supreme Court

Judges: Justice Donald W. Beatty. Chief Justice Jean Hoefer Toal and Justices John W. Kittredge and Kaye G. Hearn, concurring. Justice Costa M. Pleicones, concurring in the result only.

Date: April 11, 2011

Plaintiff-petitioner’s attorney: Jonathan R. Hendrix, of Williams, Hendrix, Steigner & Brink, of Lexington, for petitioner.

Defendant-respondent’s attorneys: Kirsten Leslie Barr, of Trask & Howell, of Mount Pleasant, for respondents.

Issues: Can a workers’ compensation claimant stack a compensable workplace injury with personal ailments in order to determine the extent of her disability?

Holding: Even though petitioner’s compensable injury alone would not render her totally disabled, since the combination of the compensable injury and petitioner’s preexisting conditions leaves her unable to work, petitioner is entitled to total disability benefits.

Click here to read the opinion digest.

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