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Thomas v. 5 Star Transp.

Court of Appeals of South Carolina

February 18, 2015

George W. Thomas, Employee, Respondent,
v.
5 Star Transportation, Employer, and S.C. Uninsured Employers Fund, Carrier, of whom 5 Star Transportation is the Appellant

Heard October 6, 2014

Page 184

Appeal From The Workers' Compensation Commission. Appellate Case No. 2012-211392.

AFFIRMED.

Michael E. Chase and Carmelo Barone Sammataro, both of Turner Padget Graham & Laney, P.A., of Columbia, for Appellant.

Malcolm M. Crosland, Jr., of The Steinberg Law Firm, LLP, of Charleston, for Respondent.

OPINION

Page 185

[412 S.C. 5] KONDUROS, J.

In this workers' compensation case, 5 Star Transportation appeals the Appellate Panel of the Workers' Compensation Commission's awarding benefits to Emily Thomas as George W. Thomas's putative or common law spouse. 5 Star contends the Appellate Panel erred in finding George's injuries arose out of and in the course and scope of his employment because he suffered an aneurysm.

5 Star also maintains the Appellate Panel erred in finding Emily was George's surviving spouse because George was already married when they married. We affirm.

Page 186

[412 S.C. 6] FACTS/PROCEDURAL HISTORY

5 Star employed George as a tour bus driver. On November 19, 2007, a bus George was driving on Interstate 26 left the road and collided with a tree. George was pronounced dead at the scene. The autopsy noted that George was " witnessed to slump over and become unresponsive prior to driving off the road." Dr. Cynthia Schandl, who performed the forensic autopsy, found the cause of death was " full body blunt trauma complicating ruptured saccular aneurysm of the brain." [1]

George married Cynthia Whaley on February 9, 1995.[2] The two did not have any children together.[3] George and Emily met in 1999 and lived together for about eight years prior to his death.[4] On September 20, 2006, George and Emily had a marriage ceremony. George told Emily a day or two before the ceremony he and Cynthia were divorced. However, George and Cynthia's divorce was not final until February 9, 2007.[5] Emily did not learn about the timing of the divorce until after George's death.

On June 26, 2008, Emily filed a claim for workers' compensation benefits for George's death. 5 Star filed a Form 53, denying George sustained an injury. It also denied Emily was entitled to benefits because her marriage to George was void. The South Carolina Uninsured Employers Fund (the Fund) also filed a Form 53, denying George sustained an injury.

Dr. Schandl testified at her deposition that " there are so many different fatal injuries at that moment of the crash that it's kind of difficult to sort out which one would have made him [412 S.C. 7] more dead." Dr. Schandl was unable to determine whether the aneurysm occurred before the collision or as a result of it but stated " to a reasonable degree of medical certainty, this condition did not cause death." Dr. Schandl noted two-thirds of patients with the same aneurysm would have survived with half of the survivors being " fine." Dr. Schandl also determined " to a reasonable degree of medical certainty, [George] died as a result of injuries sustained in a motor vehicle collision."

The single commissioner conducted a hearing on the matter on December 19, 2008. The single commissioner found the marriage did not " ripen into a common law marriage" after George's divorce from Cynthia. Accordingly, the single commissioner granted 5 Star and the Fund's motion to dismiss the claim, finding Emily was not the surviving spouse. Emily filed a request for Commission review of the single commissioner's decision. The Appellate Panel reversed the single commissioner, finding it violated Regulation 67-215(B)(1) of the South Carolina Code (2012), which provides " [t]he Commission will not address a motion involving the merits of the claim, including, but not limited to, a motion for dismissal." The Appellate Panel vacated the single commissioner's order and returned the claim to a commissioner for a de novo hearing.

A hearing was held on October 28, 2010, by a different single commissioner. The single commissioner determined George " sustained fatal compensable injuries by accident arising out of and in the course and scope of his employment as a tour bus driver" for 5 Star. It further found Emily was the common-law wife of George at the time of his death and because of that and the putative spouse doctrine, she was entitled to all rights, benefits, and privileges of a surviving spouse.

5 Star filed a Form 30 requesting review of the single commissioner's decision. The Appellate Panel issued an order affirming the single commissioner's order. It determined George suffered compensable injuries because

Page 187

the evidence was that he probably would have survived the ruptured aneurysm and what most probably caused his death was the blunt force trauma suffered in the wreck. It found it was impossible to determine whether the ruptured aneurysm occurred [412 S.C. 8] before or after the wreck. The Appellate Panel noted George was driving at a high speed on an interstate and was therefore exposed to an increased risk of injury in the event a physical condition caused him to lose consciousness. The Appellate Panel also found Emily and George held themselves out as husband and wife to the public after George's divorce was finalized. The Appellate Panel accordingly determined Emily and George were common law spouses. The Appellate Panel concluded Emily should also be entitled to benefits under the putative marriage doctrine, which it believed South Carolina courts would adopt. This appeal followed.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

In a workers' compensation appeal, an appellate court can reverse or modify the Appellate Panel's decision if the appellant's substantial rights have been prejudiced because the decision is affected by an error of law or is " clearly erroneous in view of the reliable, probative and substantial evidence on the whole record." S.C. Code Ann. § 1-23-380(5) (Supp. 2014). This court may not " substitute its judgment for that of the [Appellate Panel] as to the weight of the evidence on questions of fact, but may reverse whe[n] the decision is affected by an error of law." Stone v. Traylor Bros., 360 S.C. 271, 274, 600 S.E.2d 551, 552 (Ct.App. 2004).

" The substantial evidence rule . . . governs the standard of review in a [w]orkers' [c]ompensation decision." Frame v. Resort Servs. Inc., 357 S.C. 520, 527, 593 S.E.2d 491, 494 (Ct.App. 2004). The Appellate Panel's decision must be affirmed if supported by substantial evidence in the record. Shuler v. Gregory Elec., 366 S.C. 435, 440, 622 S.E.2d 569, 571 (Ct.App. 2005).

Substantial evidence is not a mere scintilla of evidence nor the evidence viewed blindly from one side of the case, but is evidence which, considering the record as a whole, would allow reasonable minds to reach the conclusion that the administrative ...

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