Insurance companies will often try to deny an injured employee workers’ compensation benefits based on the grounds that their own actions violated their employer’s written safety polices or procedures. This is simply a misstatement of the law. Perhaps the misunderstanding is based on the fact that the South Carolina workers’ compensation laws formerly provided that if an injury was “caused by the willful failure of an employee to use a safety appliance or perform a statutory duty or by the willful breach of any rule or regulation adopted by the employer, approved by the Commission and brought to the knowledge of the employee prior to the injury, compensation shall be reduced by ten percent.” S.C. Code Ann § 42-9-50 (repealed). In short, South Carolina workers’ compensation laws used to provide a defense to employers to deny claims if the employee contributed to her own injury or accident. However, this particular statute was repealed in 1988. S.C. Acts 677 § 5
The reason for repeal is because the South Carolina workers’ compensation system is designed to be a no fault system. This means that regardless of whether an accident was the result of unintended or incidental events or the result of an actual violation of a work safety rule, an employee is still permitted to pursue workers’ compensation benefits. The fault of the injured worker has no bearing on the right to recovery. One particular instance of this was seen in Gray v. Club Group, Ltd., where an injured worker was killed in an automobile accident during the course and scope of his employment. 339 S.C. 173, 528 S.E.2d 435 (Ct. App. 2000). The evidence showed that the employee was traveling at an excessive rate of speed when the accident occurred. As a result, the employer tried to deny payment of workers’ compensation benefits based on the employee’s own conduct contributing to the accident. Ultimately, the South Carolina Court of Appeals held that the employee’s own “willful misconduct” must not preclude her from receipt of benefits. Allowing an employer to assert such a defense would be in direct contrast to the legislature’s intent to design the workers’ comp laws to create a no fault system.
With that said, the South Carolina workers’ compensation laws do provide employers a defense to deny a claim where the injury is caused by intoxication of the employee or the willful intention of the employee to injure or kill himself. S.C. Code Ann. § 42-9-60. Thus, the distinction must be made between the employee’s willful misconduct and must rise to the level of willful intent. Notably, in Zeigler v. South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, the South Carolina Supreme Court stated that the “willful intent” defense “finds application only in those cases where it is shown the acts of the employee are so serious and aggravated as to evidence a willful intent to injure.” 250 S.C. at 329, 157 S.E.2d at 599.
So, regardless of whether you were injured at work through no fault of your own or through your own inattention, you may still be entitled to workers’ compensation benefits in South Carolina. This would include potential compensation for medical treatment, wage benefits for lost time and compensation for any resulting permanent impairment. If your employer or their workers’ compensation carrier has tried to deny you workers compensation benefits in South Carolina on the grounds that you contributed in any way to your workplace accident, please feel free to contact the Law Office of Jared C. Williams, LLC at (843) 991-6528 to speak with our workers’ compensation attorney here in Charleston, SC. We are always happy to see if we can help.