South Carolina Court: Worker Hurt at Job Housing Covered by Insurance

February 18, 2010

A seasonal worker is entitled to workers compensation benefits for an injury sustained after falling at a housing complex supplied by his employer, the South Carolina Supreme Court has ruled.

The court sided with the migrant worker who argued the so-called “bunkhouse rule” that acknowledges there are situations where employees are essentially required to live in employer-sponsored housing in order to do their job.

Since “the source of the injury was a risk associated with the conditions under which the employees were required to live,” the injury was covered by workers compensation, the Supreme Court held.

The South Carolina Workers’ Compensation Commission had denied Frantz Pierre’s claim for benefits for an injury he sustained while employed as a migrant worker with Seaside Farms, Inc. at its tomato packing facility. Pierre fractured his right ankle when he fell on a wet sidewalk at housing supplied by Seaside Farms.

The terms of employment provided that Seaside Farms would supply housing to the migrant workers at no charge. Most of the employees working in the packing facility resided at the Land’s End housing, about five miles from the packing facility.

The workers’ compensation commission determined Pierre had not sustained a compensable injury because he was not injured during the course and scope of his employment and because Pierre “was under no requirement to live in the employer provided housing pursuant to his contract for employment.” In addition, the commission concluded that he was not engaged in any activities that would further the business of his employer and that the risk associated with slipping on the sidewalk was not one uniquely associated with his employment.

Pierre appealed to the circuit court in Beaufort County, arguing that his accident did arise out of and in the course of his employment. He argued the so-called “bunkhouse rule” that alleged he “was functionally required to live in the . . . labor camp housing for lack of [a] reasonable alternative, in view of the distance of the work from residential facilities and the lack of availability of accommodations elsewhere.”

Additionally, he argued that the “erratic work schedule” meant that he may have been summoned from labor camp housing to work in the packinghouse facility “at odd and irregular hours.”

Pierre also claimed that the wet sidewalk where he fell was a peculiar hazard to which he was exposed only as a result of his employment with Seaside Farms.

The circuit court said Pierre’s proposed common-law theory of the “bunkhouse rule” was not applicable because it does not apply when the employee is not required to reside in the employer-supplied housing.

The circuit court affirmed the commission’s denial of benefits and Pierre appealed to the state Supreme Court, which this week held that the evidence did not support the conclusions by the commission and circuit court.

The state’s high court concluded that the injury did in fact arise “out of and in the course of his employment and is compensable” under South Carolina workers’ compensation law.

The Supreme Court also dismissed the previous finding that Pierre was not required to live on his employer’s premises and that his presence did not further the interest of his employer. The court noted that the company president testified that he provided housing to the workers as a cost of doing business because the workers had no other place to stay and his business could not operate if he did not provide the housing.

“It is clear from the record that Pierre was required, not by contract, but by the nature of his employment, to live on-site near the packing facility as there was no reasonable alternative and virtually all of the workers at Seaside Farms lived in the housing provided by their employer,” the high court noted.

The court also found that the evidence did not support the finding that the risk was not associated with Pierre’s employment because the sidewalk was no different in character from other sidewalks. The sidewalk was wet due to water from an outside sink. The employer’s placement of the sink and the apparent lack of drainage created the wet conditions that caused Pierre to fall. “Thus, the source of the injury was a risk associated with the conditions under which the employees were required to live,” the court concluded.

Justice Donald W. Beatty wrote the Supreme Court opinion.

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