Those of us who live in the lowcountry have marveled at the construction of the new Cooper River Bridge. The building of the bridge spanning the river from Charleston to Mount Pleasant is well ahead of schedule, and it is an engineering marvel. As with any worthy goal, there are costs to be paid and this includes the risky nature of the work for the hundreds of men and women employed to construct the bridge.
For David Inman, being hired as a head crane operator on the Charleston bridge project was a dream come true. “All of my adult life has been spent as a crane operator, and this was the kind of job you dream of,” said Mr. Inman. “The hours available and the rate of pay was allowing me to make about $60,000.00 a year and I knew the project was set to last for several years.”
Mr. Inman began working for the company building the bridge in the fall of 2002, and his work was exceptional. Each of the numerous company representatives who testified at his eventual workers’ compensation hearing agreed that Mr. Inman’s work as a crane operator was stellar.
Unfortunately, things took a bad turn for Mr. Inman on May 16, 2002. As he was moving equipment from one barge to another, he felt a sharp pain in his back. Initially, Mr. Inman did not think much of the incident. “With the type of work we do, you are going to have pulled muscles from time to time and that is all I thought it was. You certainly don’t run to your supervisor every time you have a back ache if you do heavy construction work,” he said.
A few days later, Mr. Inman went to his family doctor. The last thing he wanted to do at that time was to have a workers’ compensation claim filed. Therefore, he advised his family doctor that it was “possible” that he had been injured at work.
During the weeks thereafter, Mr. Inman continued to work a busy work schedule, often working 60 to 70 hours a week. Unfortunately, the twinge in his back persisted and he also began to experience new pain shooting through his left leg. While Mr. Inman had experienced pulled muscles in his back before May of 2002, he had never experienced any type of discomfort in his legs before the May 16, 2002 incident.
While his problems worsened, Mr. Inman still hesitated to report his work accident. “Looking back, I just kept hoping that the problem would go away,” he said. “You have to understand that this work is the only thing I have ever known. I had just bought a new home and gotten a promotion on the job, and I did not want to do anything to jeopardize the money I was earning.” Mr. Inman also testified that he knew the maximum weekly benefit for a South Carolina work injury claim was around $500.00 (the maximum compensation rate in 2002 was $549.42) and he did not think he could afford such a drastic reduction in his earnings.
Eventually, Mr. Inman was referred to Dr. Steven Poletti, a well-respected orthopedic surgeon, on July 15, 2002. As soon as Dr. Poletti reviewed Mr. Inman’s diagnostic tests, he became aware that Mr. Inman had a severe problem. Dr. Poletti advised Mr. Inman that he had a significant herniated disc in his lower back and he would almost certainly need surgery. He also advised Mr. Inman of the severe risks he faced by continuing to work.
At that time, Mr. Inman realized he had no choice other than to report his injury and pursue workers’ compensation benefits. This would begin a lengthy ordeal for Mr. Inman and his family.
Upon being notified of Mr. Inman’s claim, the bridge company advised him that it was denying the claim, as he had not reported the work accident to the company immediately after he was injured. Mr. Inman then contacted Joye Law Firm attorney Ken Harrell for legal assistance.
Mr. Harrell noted that Mr. Inman’s situation is not an unusual one for South Carolina workers, especially workers in physically demanding fields like construction.
“The law in South Carolina gives an injured employee 90 days to report a work accident because it recognizes that many workers are not inclined to go to their boss every time they experience an ache or pain on the job, and this is especially true for construction workers. While many companies have a policy that accidents are to be reported within 24 hours, not doing so does not bar an injured worker from receiving workers’ compensation benefits, especially if they have a reasonable basis for waiting, as I think Mr. Inman certainly did,” said Mr. Harrell. In fact, during the depositions taken of company representatives and at the hearing, various supervisory employees confirmed that a construction worker who reported every backache to his supervisor would be seen as a liability to the company.
Mr. Harrell filed a hearing request on Mr. Inman’s behalf in August of 2002. Over the past few years, it has been taking increasingly longer to get workers’ compensation hearings scheduled in South Carolina. Therefore, the hearing in Mr. Inman’s case did not take place until June of 2003, some ten months later, and the hearing was not completed until a later date in July of 2003.
Throughout this period Mr. Inman was without any income and his family lost virtually everything except for their home. Fortunately, Dr. Poletti was kind enough to perform two surgeries on Mr. Inman’s back during this interim period even though his right to receive payment for the surgeries was on hold pending the outcome of the case.
“The amount of time it is taking to get hearings set in South Carolina is a real hardship for employees like Mr. Inman, and for their families,” said Mr. Harrell. “The severe budget cuts for state agencies have left the Workers’ Compensation Commission short-handed.”
Mr. Harrell knew the stress that Mr. Inman’s family was under financially. “During the depression, Franklin Roosevelt once said that when you reach the end of your rope, you need to tie a knot and hang on,” said Mr. Harrell. “I didn’t have any other advice for David except that he needed to hang on while we kept fighting for his claim.”
Finally, in September of 2003, the hearing commissioner issued an order finding Mr. Inman’s claim fully compensable and ordered the insurance company to cover all of Mr. Inman’s treatment costs to date, pay him back-owed weekly disability benefits for the previous 15 months, and place him on a weekly benefits payment status until he reached maximum medical improvement. Initially, it appeared that the battle on Mr. Inman’s claim would go on for several more months as the insurance company filed an appeal of this decision to the Commission’s Appellate Panel. However, in November of 2003, the insurance carrier agreed to drop its appeal and Mr. Inman’s back-owed benefits were paid. Currently, he is facing a third surgery on his lower back, at which time a fusion procedure will be performed.
“I still have a lot of worries about how all of this will turn out because of the problems I still have,” said Mr. Inman. “However, I am so grateful to Ken for fighting for my family and me. No matter what lies ahead, I can’t imagine things getting any worse than they were for the year and a half that I had nothing coming in.”