South Carolina: In Dependency Case, Commission May Not Presume “Fornication” Occurred

In an ancient decision (one year older than me), Day v. Day, 216 S.C. 334, 58 S.E.2d 83 (1950), the Supreme Court of South Carolina, reflecting the general moral mindset of the time, held that a woman cannot be considered a dependent within the meaning of the state’s Workers’ Compensation Act if she is “lives in [an] illicit relationship with a man to whom she is not legally married” [216 S.C. at 345]. Sidetracking the subject of illicit, extramarital relationships with the skill of a well-known first century rabbi—see The Gospel of John, ch. 8: 1-11—the Court of Appeals of South Carolina, earlier this year, found that the single commissioner and the Appellate Panel erred when they concluded, without actual evidence in the record, that a woman who had lived for some time in a “tumultuous relationship” with the deceased worker, had engaged in fornication [York v. Longlands Plantation, 424 S.C. 280, 818 S.E.2d 215 (Ct. App. 2018)]. The case was remanded for further proceedings.

Background

Timothy York died in a work-related accident on August 26, 2013, when his boat capsized on a pond. In early 2014, Tyrone York, Timothy’s brother and the personal representative of his estate, filed a claim for death benefits seeking workers’ compensation death benefits on behalf of Timothy’s mother, Shirley York, as Timothy’s next of kin. Yvonne Burns sought benefits for herself as Timothy’s common law wife under S.C. Code Ann.§ 42-9-110 (2015); or alternatively, as a dependent under S.C. Code Ann. §§ 42-9-120 or 42-9-130 (2015).

Single Commissioner’s Decision

The single commissioner found decedent’s mother entitled to the full sum of death benefits allowable under the Workers’ Compensation Act (the Act), holding also that the preponderance of the testimony did not support a finding Timothy and Yvonne had a common law marriage. The single commissioner further held that although Yvonne’s financial dependency on Timothy was greater than his mother’s, such financial dependence was not determinative of the outcome of the case since, under Day v. Day, an individual cannot be a dependent if he or she is in an illicit relationship. The commissioner added that if the legislature intended to sanction an illicit relationship as constituting a basis for dependency, a provision for such would have been made in the Act. The Appellate Panel affirmed and Yvonne appealed.

Appellate Court: “Dependency” Can be Shown in Two Ways

The appellate court noted that under S.C. Code Ann.§ 42-9-290 (Supp. 2017), if an employee dies as the result of an accident arising out of the course of employment, the employer must provide death benefits to dependents wholly dependent on the decedent’s earnings for support. The court added that there are two ways to show dependency: (1) through a conclusive statutory presumption under § 42-9-110 or (2) through a factual demonstration under § 42-9-120. Moreover, if there is more than one person wholly dependent, the death benefit must be divided among them [S.C. Code Ann. 42-9-130].

What is Fornication?

Yvonne argued the Appellate Panel erred in finding she and Timothy were engaged in fornication. She pointed out that the record contained no evidence of any acts of fornication or convictions for fornication, and thus, the Appellate Panel’s findings were not supported by substantial evidence. Citing the relevant statute, the court observed that “fornication” was defined by law and meant “the living together and carnal intercourse with each other or habitual carnal intercourse with each other without living together of a man and a woman, both being unmarried [S.C. Code Ann. § 16-15-80 (2015).

The court held that the Appellate Panel erred in finding Timothy and Yvonne were engaged in fornication. The record contained no evidence of any acts of fornication or convictions for fornication.

Day v. Day

The court concluded that Day held individuals cannot be dependents under the Act if they are involved in an illicit relationship. Here, however, no evidence was presented of an illicit relationship. The Appellate Panel should have determined if, based on the evidence in the record, Yvonne qualified as a dependent under the Act.

Comment

The holding here appears entirely consistent with the overall goal of workers’ compensation laws, that benefits should be awarded without regard to a claimant’s degree of fault.

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