The South Carolina Supreme Court recently decided a case, Crane v. Ravers Discount Tire Rack and South Carolina Uninsured Employer’s Fund, which clarifies, and perhaps limits, the Workers’ Compensation Commission’s ability to support factual findings related to compensability or entitlement to benefits.
Crane suffered an acute injury to his ears on February 14, 2019 when an air hose suddenly separated from a pneumatic piece of equipment causing an “explosion-like sound” next to his ears. Surveillance video of the workspace confirmed Crane’s description of the accident, which he reported immediately thereafter. Crane filed a workers’ compensation claim alleging hearing loss, injury to the ears, and brain damage. Crane’s hearing loss was confirmed by three separate audiograms, and the defense presented no evidence that Crane’s hearing loss was caused by anything other than the work-related injury.
The Single Commissioner heard Crane’s case on June 26, 2019. The Commissioner found that, while Crane had an “accident” as alleged, he was not entitled to temporary total disability, permanent partial disability or medical care because Crane was not credible. The Commissioner made several specific findings of fact related to the Crane’s credibility in which she noticed his demeanor at the hearing and pointed to inconsistent aspects of his testimony. The Full Commission and the Court of Appeals affirmed the Single Commission’s Order. The Supreme Court vacated the Court of Appeal’s order and remanded the case to a “different Commissioner” for a de novo hearing on all issues.
The fact that the Supreme Court reversed a Commission’s decision is not surprising. The Supreme Court has been scrutinizing workers’ compensation’s decisions for several years now and has, at times, overstepped its statutory authority in this writer’s opinion. However, the Crane decision is different. Rather than a simple smack down of a decision the Court doesn’t like, the Crane decision acknowledges the Commission’s fact finding role and provides some useful guidance for practitioners.
First, the Supreme Court acknowledges that credibility can be an important factor in resolving disputes before the Commission in cases in which a claimant’s truthfulness (credibility) is “reasonably and meaningfully related to factual disputes before the Commission.” Surveillance video corroborated Crane’s injury and three different audiology exams confirmed his hearing loss. The Court noted that “[e]ven if Crane was untruthful in his testimony at the hearing, his claims for future medical care, temporary total disability and permanent impairment caused by hearing loss are based on objective medical evidence . . .[t]here is little in Crane’s medical records – or anywhere else in the record before us – that indicates Crane’s credibility reasonably and meaningfully related to whether he actually suffered hearing loss on February 19, 2014.”
As practitioners, we need to make sure that our credibility arguments relate to some issue before the Commission. If a claimant testifies, for example, that they got hurt on a particular day at a particular time, and there is no other evidence to support that testimony, one could reasonably conclude that the claimant lied about the injury itself, if one can prove that the claimant has lied about other things. However, a claimant’s credibility is likely irrelevant if it is not somehow determinative of a factual issue in dispute.
Please contact the workers’ compensation lawyers at YCRLAW if you have a case that seems incredible, and we will help you navigate the Supreme Court’s new standard.