The South Carolina Court of Appeal recently decided the case of Patel v. BVM Motel. Ms. Patel worked for a large national motel chain close to an interstate. Her job required her to be on the motel premises at all times, so she did not clock in or out. She and her husband lived in the motel, and she was not charged for the accommodations.
On August 16, 2015, at 8:01 a.m., an intruder broke into her motel room and murdered both Ms. Patel and her husband during a robbery. She was found in her uniform with her name tag attached to her shirt.
The employer denied that Ms. Patel’s beneficiaries were entitled to death benefits under the South Carolina Workers’ Compensation Act. The motel chain argued that Ms. Patel was in her room and was not working at the time of her death. In South Carolina, when an employee dies in a work-related accident, his or her beneficiaries are entitled to 500 weeks of benefits based on the decedent’s average weekly wage prior to the date of death. Here, Ms. Patel’s children argued that the approximate market value of $80 per night should be added to the calculation of her average weekly wage because that was a benefit of her employment. The motel chain argued that a hotel bartender paid $120 per week for his room, so the wages should be based on his pay.
The Single Commissioner found that Ms. Patel's death was work-related, so her children were entitled to 500 weeks of benefits. The Commissioner also found that the $80 per night market value of the hotel room should be included in the average weekly wage calculation. However, the Commissioner divided that $80 market value in half because Ms. Patel's husband also benefitted from the room, even though he was not an employee.
The motel chain appealed to the Full Commission, which in South Carolina is a panel of three commissioners who did not hear the initial claim. The Full Commission agreed with the Single Commissioner that the death was work-related, but they increased the average weekly wage based on the full $80 per night market value.
The defendants appealed to the South Carolina Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals noted that in South Carolina, if an employee is found deceased at work, it is presumed that the death is work-related. This means that the employer would have the burden of proving that the death did not result from work. The court then found that since Ms. Patel was dressed for work, and since there was no evidence to the contrary, Ms. Patel's death was work-related. The court also noted that the motel was in a dangerous area, located near an interstate.
The court also affirmed the findings of the Full Commission on the average weekly wage issue. The court noted that the bartender's situation was different from Ms. Patel's agreement, per the testimony of the only employer witness on the subject. Therefore, the only evidence for the claim should be based on the fair market value of the room.
At this point, the motel chain could appeal the decision of the Court of Appeals to the South Carolina Supreme Court. Unless and until the Supreme Court makes a decision on these issues, this case is binding in South Carolina.