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Workers' Compensation Benefits for Disfiguring Work Injuries
Tuesday, April 10, 2012 at 7:38 AM

The lawyers at the Elderkin Law Firm have successfully represented many injured workers throughout Erie and Northwestern Pennsylvania in workers' compensation claims. Most workers know that workers' compensation benefits include wage loss benefits, medical expense benefits and death benefits. However, oftentimes injured workers are not aware that they may also be entitled to additional benefits if they suffer a disfiguring work injury. Section 306(c)(22) of the workers' compensation act provides for benefits for a disfiguring work injury in an amount calculated to be as much as 275 weeks of the worker's wage loss benefit amount. However, the question of whether the disfiguring injury has caused a compensable "unsightly appearance" is a very subjective one.

 

For instance, in Walker v. Workers' Compensation Appeal Board, the hearing judge felt that the injury was sufficiently unsightly, but the appeal board disagreed. Walker was employed as a meter reader and she suffered a fractured nose when she fell down a flight of stairs while working. She required two nose surgeries to treat the fracture. She testified that she considers herself to be "deformed" because her nose has scars on it and the tip of her nose is crooked. The hearing judge asked her to submit photographs of herself because a change to Claimant's nose was not obvious to the judge. Walker complied, submitting into evidence photographs of herself taken both before and after her accident. Based upon the before-and-after photos, the judge concluded that Walker's nose injury had caused a permanent and unsightly disfigurement. The judge stated that before this work injury, Walker's nose, as shown in the photographs, was straight. In the photographs taken after the accident and the subsequent surgeries, the nose is crooked, leaning to the left side of her face. The crookedness begins at the base of the bridge of the nose and continues to the end of her nose. Thus, the judge ruled that Walker was entitled to workers' compensation benefits for the disfiguring work injury. The appeal board reversed the hearing judge's disfigurement award. The board viewed Walker in person and found that her nose only had "a slight crookedness" to the left side. The board felt that "the crookedness is not noticeably disfiguring" and, therefore, it did not qualify for benefits under the workers' compensation act.

 

Pennsylvania courts have consistently held that in order for an injured worker to establish entitlement to a disfigurement award, "there must be affirmative findings that the disfigurement be (1) serious and permanent, (2) of such character as to produce an unsightly appearance, and (3) such as is not usually incident to employment." Not every change to a claimant's head, neck or face caused by a work injury will be compensable under the Workers' Compensation Act. A discernable scar, blemish or alteration of the appearance of the head, neck or face must also rise to the level of creating an unsightly appearance, or it will not be considered a disfigurement for purposes of the workers' compensation act. Therefore, the change in appearance that is caused by a work injury, as assessed through a personal view by the hearing judge and the appeal board on a case-by-case basis, must create an unsightly appearance. If it does not look that bad to these judges, there will be no disfigurement award. In Walker, the hearing judge did not see an unsightly appearance when he viewed Walker and requested photographs. Based on the photographs, the judge saw a change in Walker's nose and found it to be unsightly. The courts have cautioned against gauging unsightliness on the basis of photographs because photographs can be manipulated by lighting and focus, to make the facial alteration appear worse than it actually is. The appeal board fulfilled its duty of personally viewing Walker and determined that the hearing judge's decision was unsupported because although there was a visible alteration to Walker's nose, it amounted to a "slight crookedness" that is "not noticeably disfiguring."

 

Call (814) 456-4000 to speak with Edward J. Betza or Craig A. Markham at the Elderkin Law Firm in Erie, PA and to arrange for a free consultation concerning your questions about workers' compensation claims. Your initial meeting with one of the attorneys in our Erie, PA office is absolutely free and is without any obligation to hire us. We will provide you with a free initial evaluation of your case and will answer your questions about the law. If you choose the Elderkin Law firm to represent you, you will pay no fee unless we are successful in obtaining compensation for your injuries and losses. In such a case, our fee will be calculated as a percentage of the amount of the settlement or award.