Every few years, the Pennsylvania legislature makes amendments to the state’s workers’ compensation law. Sometimes, the amendments are favorable to injured workers; other times, the changes benefit employers and insurance companies. Recently, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives passed a House Bill, HB 930, by a vote of 112-88, that will be a nice win for injured workers if the Pennsylvania Senate votes in favor of the bill, and Governor Shapiro signs it into law. The proposed legislation pertains to provisions of the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act that govern an injured worker’s entitlement to disfigurement benefits. We will summarize the law on disfigurement benefits as it stands now, and then explain how the new law would broaden the scope of these benefits for injured workers.
Here are the key components of the current version of the Pennsylvania workers’ compensation law on disfigurement:
What? The disfigurement must be serious, permanent, and unsightly for an injured worker to be entitled to benefits. As a rule, “serious and permanent” refers to a disfigurement lasting more than six months. For example, a small scar that goes away in three months will not be worth any money. “Unsightly” means unpleasant to look at or noticeable in a negative way.
Where? The Workers’ Compensation Act provides that scarring or disfigurement must be to the person’s head, face, or neck. The neck refers to above the collarbone or clavicle. Loss of teeth is covered. To state the obvious, a person is not entitled to benefits for any disfigurement below the neck. Therefore, the arms, back, chest, stomach, legs, and feet are not included.
How Much? The maximum that an injured worker can receive under the current version of the law is 275 weeks of benefits. An injured worker’s weekly benefits rate is based on their “average weekly wage” — this is calculated based on a formula that takes into account the worker’s earnings over the year before the injury. The average weekly wage corresponds to a weekly benefits rate – 2/3, or 66.7%, is the norm, although it can be as high as 90% for low wage earners, and sometimes it is less than 50% for high wage earners. The injured worker’s weekly benefits rate dictates how much the person is entitled to when disabled from their job, as well as how much they would receive in disfigurement benefits. An example: a person’s average weekly wage is $1,200; the weekly benefits rate is $800. The most that person could receive in disfigurement benefits is $220,000 – $800 x 275. Furthermore, a person does not have to be disabled in order to receive disfigurement benefits. In other words, if a person sustained a forehead burn while working but did not miss a day of work, the worker may still receive disfigurement benefits.
Who Decides? Unless the injured worker’s lawyer and the insurance company lawyer can reach an agreement on the amount of disfigurement benefits, the Workers’ Compensation Judge will make the determination of how many weeks of benefits to award the injured worker — none, 10, 50, 200 – the Judge has the discretion. The Judge will carefully observe the injured worker’s disfigurement, either at an in-person hearing or at a video hearing, and then describe it. For example, the Judge may find a three-inch scar at the bottom of the person’s chin that is slightly discolored and raised. Your lawyer and the insurance company’s lawyer may offer additional comments about the scar or burn at issue. Photographs of the injured worker’s head, face, or neck before the injury can be submitted so the Judge can make a before-and-after comparison. The more severe and unsightly the disfigurement is, the higher the number of weeks the Judge is likely to award. Burns to both sides of the face that dramatically affect the person’s appearance are likely to generate a substantially higher award than a barely noticeable scar on the neck.
How Would the New Bill Affect Disfigurement Benefits? The most significant proposed change to the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act applies to the “Where?” Disfigurement benefits will no longer be limited to a person’s head, face, and neck; an injured worker will be entitled to receive money for scarring or disfigurement to any part of their body. Burns to the arms or feet and scars across the chest and down the legs have always been worth $0 in disfigurement benefits. Now, however, if the amendments make it into law, a person may be able to receive benefits for these burns and scars.
Another feature of the House Bill is an increase in the maximum amount of disfigurement benefits that an injured worker may receive, from 275 weeks to 400 weeks. This represents an increase of more than 40%. The $1,200 weekly wage earner that we discussed earlier could potentially be awarded $220,000 in disfigurement benefits under the current law but would be entitled to a maximum of $320,000 under the new law. This figure still pales in comparison to the sky-high verdicts that are awarded to individuals in personal injury cases, but this bill would still be a step in the right direction for injured workers to be compensated when they suffer the embarrassment and humiliation caused by unsightly scars or burns.
You Can Help – These amendments to Pennsylvania’s workers’ compensation law would greatly benefit injured workers. Please contact your state senator and urge him or her to vote “Yay” for this important bill.
Pearson Koutcher Law – Whether you have been disfigured or not as the result of a work-related injury, you should have an experienced, knowledgeable, and compassionate workers’ compensation lawyer to represent you in your case. At Pearson Koutcher Law, workers’ compensation is all we do – we will battle the insurance company tooth-and-nail and get the maximum benefits for you. Please call us today for a free consultation with one of our lawyers.