Vivian loved working with the residents at the group home and really felt like she was making a difference. But after suffering a serious neck injury on the job, Vivian was unable to go back to the work she loved. The workers’ compensation lawyers at Joye Law Firm got Vivian the medical treatment and benefits she needed to get her life back.
Vivian Clark always enjoyed helping persons who had difficulty caring for themselves. For nearly 20 years, she worked as a caretaker at a center helping to care for residents who suffered from severe cases of Down’s syndrome.
“Some of our patients were a real challenge but over the years, you just came to love them – even the most difficult ones,” said Vivian.
Perhaps Vivian’s love of her job explains why she was determined to continue working after she suffered a severe injury to her neck. While trying to break up an altercation between two of the facility’s residents, Vivian was grabbed from behind by a resident and pulled down to the floor. Initially, Vivian thought she was just shaken up. However, when her neck pain persisted and she began to experience pain and numbness in both of her arms, she realized her situation was more dire than she previously thought. Eventually, she was referred to an orthopedic surgeon who had to perform fusion surgery on her neck, inserting a steel plate in her neck to stabilize her vertebrae.
Following her surgery, Vivian was determined to try to return to work. Her treating doctors’ notes include many statements such as “she is anxious to continue full duty work” and “she is some better and wants to try to return to work.”
Consistent with these notes, Vivian tried to return to work at the center on multiple occasions only to find that each time she did this, she began to experience pain in her neck and arms again. Eventually, her employer advised her that they would be unable to keep her on the staff due to her physical problems and she was terminated by her employer.
Following her termination, the issue of her entitlement to a recovery for permanent physical impairment or permanent disability under the Workers’ Compensation Act remained. The insurance carrier for the state, the South Carolina State Accident Fund, hired a lawyer to represent it and offered Vivian $17,000.00 to settle her claim.
Based on the information she received, Vivian (who had never conferred with an attorney) was ready to accept this offer.
“They told me that the rating my treating doctor had given me was only worth a little over $5,000.00 so I figured what they were going to pay me was the best I could do,” she says.
Not only was Vivian on the verge of making a serious mistake in regard to the value of her claim, she was also about to give up valuable future medical rights. The hardware from her neck surgery was still in her neck but under the terms of the settlement proposal made by the State Fund, she was going to surrender all of her future medical rights related to her accident injuries.
Fortunately, under South Carolina law, an injured employee who is unrepresented must have their proposed settlement reviewed by a Workers’ Compensation Commissioner before the settlement can be finalized.
In Vivian’s case, a review conference was set up before a hearing commissioner. It has been debated as to how effective these settlement reviews can be given the severe workload the state’s Workers’ Compensation Commissioners are under, but the safety net these reviews were designed to provide certainly worked in Vivian’ case.
“The judge seemed most concerned about the fact that I was going to be giving up all of my future medical rights when she learned that I still had the plate in my neck. She told me she simply could not approve the agreement with those terms and she told me I needed to find a lawyer,” said Vivian.
Shortly thereafter, Vivian retained Joye Law Firm attorney Ken Harrell.
“Workers are sometimes convinced that hiring a lawyer is simply going to cut the amount of what they end up with in their pocket for their permanent impairment or, as in Vivian’ case, her permanent disability. I felt like there were three huge problems in Vivian’s case. First, the assigned impairment rating was way too low for what she had gone through. Second, given how hard she had tried to return to work, her being 56 years old, and her limited work experience, this was a disability case. Finally, the idea of her giving up her future medical rights was ridiculous. Thank God she went before a good Commissioner who put her foot down,” said Harrell.
After Vivian retained the Joye Law Firm, Mr. Harrell sent Vivian to another reputable orthopedic surgeon who assigned Vivian a significantly higher impairment rating (30% impairment of the spine compared to her previous rating of 7% impairment of the spine). He also had her evaluated by a vocational consultant who was of the opinion that Vivian was totally and permanently disabled given all of the facts in her case.
Two days before an evidentiary hearing was to be held to address Vivian’s entitlement to workers’ compensation benefits, the claim was resolved on drastically different terms.
First, the State Fund agreed to pay Vivian $95,950.23 to settle the disability portion of her claim. Given Vivian’s weekly compensation rate, this was the maximum amount she could receive for disability benefits in her case. More importantly, the State Fund also agreed to provide Vivian with lifetime medical coverage for any problems related to her work injuries, including coverage for any future complications related to the hardware in her neck. Further, Mr. Harrell was able to have language inserted in Vivian’s settlement agreement to maximize her future entitlement to Social Security disability benefits.
Vivian said she had one reaction to the revised terms of her settlement. “When Mr. Harrell called me, all I could say was, Hallelujah! I had prayed about my situation so often and I really feel like the Lord led me to the right people, starting with the judge who refused to approve my settlement.”