An employee says he told his employer he hurt his back at work. The owner of the company says he doesn’t remember the conversation. Does the employee qualify for workers’ comp?
Richard Hartzell says in February 2009, he hurt his back while moving tires, rims and heavy frame equipment while cleaning at Palmetto Collision.
Hartzell says the day after his injury, he told the owner, Mike Stallings, that he was “pretty sore” and “must have hurt himself.” Hartzell says Stallings told him to go to the ER if he was having problems, but Hartzell didn’t seek medical treatment at the time.
Because business was slow, Hartzell ended his employment at the collision shop on March 20, 2009.
Hartzell filed a workers’ compensation claim on May 10, 2010, for a partial permanent injury to his back. Palmetto Collision denied the claim on the basis that Hartzell failed to provide notice of his injury as required by South Carolina law.
At a hearing before a workers’ comp commissioner, Stallings testified the first he heard about Hartzell’s injury was when he received the workers’ comp claim. Stallings said he didn’t remember the conversation with Hartzell. He didn’t deny the conversation occurred, only that it didn’t “ring a bell.”
The commissioner found Hartzell “timely reported the injury” to Stallings and awarded “medical, surgical and other authorized treatment” compensation to Hartzell.
The Workers’ Compensation Commission affirmed the commissioner’s decision, finding Hartzell had made a timely report of his injury. The Commission found Hartzell’s testimony was more credible on the issue.
The company took its case to a state appeals court. The court of appeals found the Commission erred in finding Hartzell provided proper notice of his injury because there wasn’t substantial evidence to show that in the record. The court reversed the Commission’s award of benefits to Hartzell who then took his case to the South Carolina Supreme Court.
South Carolina’s workers’ comp law says an injured employee must provide notice to his employer of a work-related injury “on the occurrence of an accident, or as soon thereafter as practicable” and must do so “within 90 days after the occurrence of the accident.” The law also states that this provision “should be liberally construed in favor of claimants.”
The only notice the company received in this case was the conversation between Hartzell and Stallings, which Stallings says he couldn’t recall.
However, the Commission found Hartzell more credible than Stallings regarding the conversation.
“While reasonable minds could have reached a different conclusion based on the record, we must not engage in fact-finding that would disregard the Commission’s factual findings on these issues,” the court wrote.
The South Carolina Supreme Court found the Commission’s decision was supported by substantial evidence. Therefore, the appeals court’s decision was reversed, reinstating workers’ comp benefits to Hartzell.
A note: The company has sought to have this decision reversed on grounds other than notice about the injury. Those issues still need to be heard before the appeals court.
The take-home: The collision shop in this case was a small business with fewer than 10 employees. While it can be difficult for small businesses to maintain paperwork on various issues, it’s always best to get workers’ injury reports in writing and establish that as a company rule.
What do you think about this case? Does your company have a rule regarding written notice of employee injuries? Let us know in the comments.
(Hartzell v. Palmetto Collision LLC, South Carolina Supreme Court, No. 27620, 4/13/16)