Palmetto Hardwood, Inc. is a South Carolina corporation that employed the Petitioner. Through his employment with Palmetto Hardwood, Inc, the Petitioner had suffered three work related injuries: the first two incidents involved an injury to the man’s back, and the third involved a shard of metal flying from a gang saw and striking the man in the head. The Workers’ Compensation Commission found that the man had suffered an injury that was compensable, and found him to be totally and permanently disabled.
The Commission found that the man was to receive five hundred weeks of compensation as a result of his total disability, and metal expenses related to the three injuries. The case went up for appeal, and they asked the Commission to (1) explain whether the physical brain injury it found bordered on the frivolous was intended to be the same as or different from physical brain damage as used in S.C. Code Ann. § 42-9-10(C) and (2). They argued that it was contradictory for the court to find the man suffered a “compensable injury to the head” with a finding of “no physical brain injury.” Further, on remand, the Commission clarified that the claimant has failed to carry his burden of proof to establish physical brain damage as contemplated by S.C. Code Ann. § 42-9-10. However, on appeal the circuit court affirmed the Commission’s order. Petitioner then appealed to the Court of Appeals.
DISCUSSION AND HOLDING:
The interpretation of a statute is a question of law. So, if the construction of a statute by the agency that whose duty it is to carry out it’s administration, that agency will be afforded the most respectful consideration. However, if the agency’s reading of the statute conflicts with the plain language thereof, it must be rejected. CFRE, LLC v. Greenville County Assessor, 395 S.C. 67, 74.
The idea behind the rule of statutory construction is to “ascertain and effectuate the intent of the Legislature.” Gilstrap v. South Carolina Budget and Control Bd., 310 S.C. 210, 213. Further, “a statute as a whole must receive practical, reasonable, and fair interpretation consonant with the purpose, design, and policy of lawmakers. When interpreting a statute, the language must be read in a sense that harmonizes with its subject matter and accords with its general purpose.” Id.
S.C. Code Ann. § 42-9-10(C) reads as follows:
“Notwithstanding the five-hundred-week limitation prescribed in this section or elsewhere in this title, any person determined to be totally and permanently disabled who as a result of a compensable injury is a paraplegic, a quadriplegic, or who has suffered physical brain damage is not subject to the five-hundred-week limitation and shall receive the benefits for life.”
The term physical brain damage is the term at issue here. The term suggests that the General Assembly intended a more restrictive meaning than the most literal interpretation as proposed by the Petitioner here. The Statute awards lifetime benefits for someone who is “totally disabled;” they must be permanent physical impairments. So, the General Assembly intends to give the statute consistent meaning. S.C. Code Ann. § 42-9-400(d) (Supp. 2011) used the term “brain damage” in a list of “permanent physical impairments.” This code is a bit more clearly defined than in S.C. Code Ann. 42-9-110 (d). Therefore, the court found that the General Assembly intended “physical brain damage” to have meaning consistent with 42-9-400(d); and, this interpretation is consistent with that of the Commission and thus affords proper deference to the agency.
Section 42-9-10(c) also requires that the injury be “physical,” which means “of or pertaining to the body, as distinguished from the mind or spirit; bodily” and “of or pertaining to material things.” American Heritage Dictionary 935 (2nd College Ed. 1991). There is nothing in the statute that suggests that this word should be interpreted otherwise, so in this case there is no dispute that Petitioner suffered at lease a mild concussion, by definition a physical injury to the brain.
Petitioner also argues that the General Assembly’s use of the verb phrase “has suffered” indicates that the injury need not result in permanent damage, since this form of the verb requires no more than that the action. The court, however, disagreed with this interpretation. They suppose that the term must signify that the action occurred in the past but has continuing effects in the present.
Therefore, the court concluded that the term “physical brain damage” as used in § 42-9-10(C) is physical brain damage that is both permanent and severe. And, the statute does not require total and permanent disability, but does require that the claimant suffer physical brain damage as a result of the compensable injury. So, it must be more than a mere concussion, which by definition does not have lasting effects. If it does have lasting effects, it may be considered compensable. The judgment of the Court of Appeals is Affirmed.
If you or someone you know has suffered a work related injury and may be permanently disabled as a result, call the law offices of Reeves, Aiken & Hightower, LLP for a consultation. If you have questions feel free to call our Baxter Village office in Fort Mill, South Carolina at 803-548-4444, or toll free at 877-374-5999.