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Is death by murder covered by workers’ compensation insurance? Or any injury caused by an assault or violent crime?
In Patel v. BVM Motel, the SC Court of Appeals held that if you work at a motel, live on the motel’s premises, are “on duty” day and night, and you are killed in a robbery while wearing your work uniform at the motel, your survivors are entitled to death benefits under SC workers’ compensation law.
Whether a death by murder or an injury caused by violent crime is compensable, like other on-the-job injuries, depends on whether the death happened “in the course and scope of employment.” The Bunkhouse Rule or the Personal Comfort Doctrine may also apply in your case.
How did the Court of Appeals reach the conclusion that a murder, which could happen to anyone whether they are on the job or walking down the street, is compensable under workers’ compensation?
What is a compensable injury under workers’ compensation laws in SC?
A compensable injury is defined as an “injury by accident arising out of and in the course of employment and shall not include a disease in any form, except when it results naturally and unavoidably from the accident and except such diseases as are compensable under the provisions of Chapter 11 of this title.”
“Arising out of” means the origin and cause of the injury, while “in the course of” means when, where, and how the injury happened.
An injury arises out of the employment when the injury “happens because of the employment, as when the employment is a contributing proximate cause.” There must be “a causal connection between the conditions under which the work is required to be performed and the resulting injury.”
Every case is decided based on its own unique facts, and there is no general rule – in many cases, death by murder or injury by violent crime may not be covered by workers’ compensation.
What if it’s a close call? SC courts have said that “[t]he general policy in South Carolina is to construe the Workers’ Compensation Act in favor of coverage, and any reasonable doubts as to construction should be resolved in favor of the claimant.”
The Court of Appeals found that Patel’s death did occur in the course of her employment, because:
In part, the Court of Appeals reached this conclusion by applying 1) the Bunkhouse Rule, and 2) the Personal Comfort Doctrine.
What is “the Bunkhouse Rule?”
In Pierre v. Seaside Farms, the SC Supreme Court held that when an employee is required to live on the employer’s premises, their residence on the premises is in the employer’s interests, the hazard was on the employer’s premises (although not necessarily a hazard created by the employer), and the employee is “making reasonable use of the premises,” the injury arose out of and in the course of the employment.
In Pierre, the claimant was covered where he lived on the employer’s tomato farm, he had signed an employment agreement although he had not started work yet, and he slipped and fell on a wet sidewalk on the premises.
As with Patel, the nature of Pierre’s work required him to live on the premises, he was making reasonable use of the property, and he was “on call” at the time of the injury. Like Patel, he was exposed to the hazard because of his employment, and that establishes the necessary connection between the injury and the employment.
The “Personal Comfort Doctrine” also applies here – injuries that are suffered when on break, or when engaging in “imperative acts such as eating, drinking, smoking, seeking relief from discomfort, preparing to begin or quit work, and resting or sleeping,” also arise out of the employment and are compensable under workers’ compensation laws in SC.
Although Patel was not “on the clock” when she was killed, she was “on call,” and she was clearly “preparing to begin work” and was wearing her uniform and name tag.
SC courts have also held that “where an employee is found injured or dead at a time and place where his employment reasonably required him to be, there is a presumption of fact that death arose out of and in the course of employment.”
In Patel’s case, her employment reasonably required her to be on the premises at the time that she was killed, and therefore there is a presumption that the death arose out of and in the course of her employment.
What would happen if Patel’s family sued the Motel for wrongful death?
They would move to dismiss the lawsuit because the Workers’ Compensation Act prohibits lawsuits by employees for work-related injuries…
For example, in Doe v. South Carolina State Hospital, 285 S.C. 183, 238 S.E.2d 652 (Ct. App. 1985), the Court of Appeals found that a nursing supervisor’s lawsuit against a state hospital where she was employed was barred because her exclusive remedy was a workers’ compensation claim:
An injury arises in the course of employment . . . when it occurs within the period of the employment at a place where the employee reasonably may be in the performance of his duties, and while he is fulfilling those duties, or engaged in something incidental thereto. Fowler v. Abbott Motor Co., 236 226, 113 S.E.2d 737, 739 (1960). There is no question here that appellant was assaulted at her place of employment, during her working hours and while she was in the performance of her duties as a nursing supervisor in the Saunders Building on the Hospital’s campus.
Similarly, because Patel was assaulted at her place of employment, while she was on call, and while she was preparing for the day’s work, she cannot sue the motel for wrongful death, and her only remedy against the motel is a claim for workers’ compensation wrongful death benefits.
If your family member has been killed on the job because of their employment, you may be entitled to workers’ compensation death benefits even if the employer is attempting to deny the claim.
Call now and schedule a free consultation with a Myrtle Beach worker’s compensation lawyer on the Axelrod team to find out what your options are, to get help filing your claim, or to get help appealing a denial of your claim. Call us at 843-353-3449 or fill out our contact form today.
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