02/16/2010

South Carolina Supreme Court Ruling Helps Injured Migrant Workers

In a victory for migrant workers, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled today in an SPLC case that a Haitian immigrant injured in company-provided housing is entitled to compensation for his injuries and lost wages.

“This is a very important ruling for migrant workers, who often face dangerous conditions in their jobs but are frequently denied health care benefits and compensation for the injuries they suffer on the job,” said SPLC attorney Andrew Turner.

Frantz Pierre, a legal U.S. resident from Haiti, fractured his ankle when he slipped on a wet sidewalk outside the workers’ barracks on his first day at work for Seaside Farms in South Carolina in 2003.

Seaside Farms hired Pierre, who had traveled from his home state of Florida for the job, for $6 an hour to pack tomatoes on a 400-acre farm on St. Helena Island.

The company provided workers with basic, barrack-like accommodation free of charge. The tin-roof building housed three people in a room and a total of about 100 workers. They shared a kitchen and showers as well as a sink just outside of the building where residents could wash clothing.

Pierre had just put his belongings down in his room and walked outside when he slipped on a wet sidewalk outside the door. As he lay on the ground in pain, he noticed water was spilling from the outside sink and flowing down the sidewalk, according to court documents.

Pierre was taken to a hospital for a fractured right ankle. Seaside Farms fired Pierre, who could not find other work because of his injury. He filed a workers’ compensation claim, seeking benefits for the cost of medical treatment and lost wages for the period from June 5, 2003, through Jan. 31, 2004.

The South Carolina Worker’s Compensation Commission denied the claim, and the circuit court upheld the commission’s decision.

The Supreme Court decision promises to further extend the reach of the “bunkhouse rule,” which states that an employee should be compensated if he is required to live on an employer’s premises and is injured during the course of his duties.

Pierre alleged in his claim that he was injured while making reasonable use of company housing, where he was required to live because of the nature of the work and the long hours.

In its ruling against Pierre, the South Carolina Worker’s Compensation Commission determined that he had not been injured while on the job and that he was “under no requirement to live in the employer-provided housing pursuant to his contract for employment.” 

In the written decision overturning the earlier ruling, the Supreme Court wrote that “Pierre was essentially required to live on the employer’s premises by the nature of his employment and he was making a reasonable use of the employer-provided premises at the time of the accident.”

Pierre said he was gratified that his six-year legal battle against Seaside and its insurer, American Home Assurance Insurance Co., resulted in a victory that could help other injured workers.

“I am just glad that we won the case and that others will not have to fight so hard now that we did this,” Pierre said.