Employee’s Rights to Temporary Total Disability Benefits and Termination
In Cranford v. Hutchinson Construction, Op. No. 4939, Ct. App. June 13, 2012), claimant sustained injuries to his hands, arms and back after having to jump out of a forklift basket approximately 10 feet above the ground. The Single Commissioner, Commissioner Avery Wilkerson, awarded 4 weeks for the left arm, 8 weeks for the right arm (both for scarring) and 0% for the back, and held claimant was not entitled to temporary total disability benefits (TTD) or additional medical benefits. The Full Commission, consisting of Commissioners Beck, Lyndon and Huffstetler, affirmed. The Court of Appeals, consisting of Judges Williams, Short and Geathers, held the Commission was correct in not awarding TTD benefits because claimant received salary while he was out of work because of his injuries, and he was assigned to work within his light duty restrictions when he returned, until he was subsequently terminated for cause: violating the company’s safety policy. The Court of Appeals then withdrew their decision and refiled an opinion holding Claimant was entitled to TTD benefits from the time he was terminated for cause until he was released at maximum medical improvement with no work restrictions.
The Court of Appeals held an injured employee is entitled to temporary disability benefits unless (1) a physician determines the employee can return to work without restriction or (2) a physician determines the employee has reached maximum medical improvement and the employee is therefore entitled to permanent disability benefits. In Cranford, the court decided Claimant was entitled to TTD benefits because he was not released to work without restriction—he was told to refrain from heavy lifting and strenuous activity and to “take it easy.” Claimant reached maximum medical improvement on June 3, 2008, and the authorized treating physician allowed Claimant to return to work with “the use of good body mechanics and careful lifting techniques.” Thus, the reason Claimant was not working was not of consequence to the court’s determination of whether temporary disability benefits were owed.
This case sheds light on an important topic for employers: whether an employee working light duty because of a workers’ compensation injury can be terminated without triggering the employee’s right to temporary total disability benefits. The South Carolina Workers’ Compensation Regulations state “[d]isability benefits are used to compensate the employee for the difference in what he was making before and after an accident due to the injury sustained.” S.C. Reg. 67-502(B)(1) (emphasis added). Unfortunately, this new opinion requires employers to continue to provide either work or TTD payments for any injured employee who has not been released without restriction or who has not reached MMI, without regard to the employer’s reason for the termination. We will continue to follow this case to see if the Supreme Court decides to weigh in on the issue.