Case name: Bartley v. Allendale County School District, et al., No. 4476 (S.C. Ct. App. 01/08/09).
Ruling: The South Carolina Court of Appeals held that a public school teacher was not entitled to workers' compensation benefits for a mental injury. The evidence did not suggest that her workplace injury aggravated her preexisting psychological condition.
What it means: Preexisting depression does not preclude workers' compensation benefits for a mental injury in South Carolina. However, an employer's liability for aggravation of a preexisting condition arises only when the employee has a dormant condition that becomes disabling because of the aggravating injury.
Summary: During recess, a fifth-grade student with cerebral palsy ran toward the teacher to give her a hug. He inadvertently knocked her down onto some tree roots and landed on top of her. The teacher sought benefits for injuries to her right shoulder, neck, right arm and hand, left knee, and migraine headaches. The injuries did not prevent her from teaching at a new school the next year.
In a later incident, a student lifted a desk and threatened to throw it at her. The teacher experienced psychological problems and again sought benefits, not only for her physical injuries but also for "psychological overlay." She was awarded benefits for a 30 percent permanent loss of use of her back, but her mental injury claim was denied.
The Court of Appeals declined to disturb the lower court's conclusion that the incident did not cause or aggravate the teacher's psychological conditions. Although the teacher presented some evidence that the first school incident aggravated her preexisting psychological conditions, the employer argued that the teacher had a history of depression dating back 15 years. Further, her medical records showed that she complained her migraine headaches had gotten worse six months before the first incident.
The court explained that an injured employee is entitled to compensation and medical benefits for disability if the combination of permanent physical impairment and a preexisting impairment results in a substantially greater disability. Because there was conflicting evidence that the second incident caused or aggravated the teacher's preexisting conditions, the court deferred to the lower court's finding that the incident did not aggravate those conditions.
March 5, 2009
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