By Ken W. Harrell, Managing Partner
The recent death of Boeing employee David Priester due to a brain injury he sustained as the result of a March 18 fall was a tragedy for his family, and for all of his co-workers at Boeing. Mr. Priester was only 38 years old and it’s hard to fathom the pain his family is experiencing. I have often heard misinformed people refer to “million dollar workers’ comp awards.” It might surprise many people to know how limited the benefits are that his family will receive under our state’s workers’ compensation system.
Let me note that this is in no way an anti-Boeing piece. Like everyone else in Charleston, I was thrilled when Boeing chose to locate its Dreamliner manufacturing plant here and I suspect the long-term benefits to economic growth in the tri-county area will be similar to the benefits seen in the upstate after BMW built a factory in Greenville. Boeing cannot guarantee the absolute safety of all of its employees all of the time. There are certain lines of work, such as construction and heavy manufacturing, where the risk of a severe injury is greater due to the nature of the work.
At the Joye Law Firm, we’ve represented several Boeing employees who sustained work injuries but I have not seen anything to lead me to believe that safety is not a top priority for Boeing. The reason our “no fault” workers’ compensation system exists is to provide some protection to injured workers, while protecting employers from the risks of an uncapped liability damages award.
Unfortunately, the caps on workers’ compensation awards in South Carolina are often overly harsh for a family whose loved one is killed on the job, or for a worker who is totally disabled. I don’t know exactly how much Mr. Priester was being paid but based on the wages of other Boeing workers we have represented, it’s reasonable to estimate that his annual earnings were in the range of $70,000 a year. Assuming he worked another 27 years and factoring in anticipated raises, his earnings at Boeing until age 65 would have been well in excess of $2.5 million (and that doesn’t even include the value of other benefits, such as pension coverage and health insurance). However, for someone who is killed while working in South Carolina, the surviving family is limited to a recovery of 500 weeks of benefits using that employee’s compensation rate. Normally, a South Carolina injured worker’s weekly compensation rate is 2/3rds of their average weekly gross wages but that is capped by a maximum compensation rate. The maximum compensation rate in South Carolina for a 2013 work injury is $743.72.
There is yet another reduction in the benefits if the family receives the death benefit in a lump sum amount as South Carolina law requires that the lump sum payment represent the “present cash value” of the number of weeks owed. Under the present cash value table currently being used by our Commission (which has now failed to take action on a revised table to represent a truer representation of present cash value for several months), 500 weeks of benefits is reduced to 396.8116 weeks. When multiplied by the maximum compensation rate of $743.72, the death benefit to be paid to the Priester family would be $295,116.72, a far cry from what he could have earned working until an expected retirement age. Less I forget, there is also a funeral benefit paid to the family of a South Carolina worker killed on the job. How much is it? $2,500. That is an embarrassment for our system.
There is no amount of money that can take away the pain of a family who has seen a loved one die in an untimely manner. Dozens of workers die in South Carolina each year due to work accidents. Typically, the deaths receive little media attention. Mr. Priester’s death has been more publicized because he works for a high-profile employer. Hopefully, future changes will be made to our workers’ compensation system to more fully protect families who find themselves in this tragic situation.