Massachusetts’ workers’ compensation program has essentially one goal: compensate employees who are injured on the job. To meet this goal, various “price tags” are assigned to different injuries depending on their severity and location on the body. The part of a person’s body that suffers injury plays a fairly determinative role in the compensation that person will receive. For the most part, this evaluation was intended to be based on the utility of that specific body part. For example, the loss of an eye would more severely affect a person compared with the loss of a pinky finger. Thus, the compensation for an eye is much greater. When a person is disfigured, as opposed to losing a body part, they deserve compensation for that as well. The laws in Massachusetts, however, are somewhat arbitrary when it comes to disfigurement, which often poses a problem, as more than 3,000 workers each year suffer from a workplace injury.
On May 7, 2012 Sylbert Stewart was a 56-year-old factory worker. Stewart had worked at the Belmont metal finishing factory for 14 years. On that particular day, Stewart was standing on the edge of a dipping tank. He was attempting to clean the tops of the ventilation ducts. Stewart slipped and fell into a vat of chemicals. Stewart suffered second and third degree burns, which covered his legs from his feet to his thighs. He had to have skin taken from his back, chest, and arms for the skin grafts required to cover the burns on his legs. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration wrote citations to his employer for safety violations. As a result of the injury, Stewart received 60% of his paychecks through workers’ compensation. When asked if he could rate his pain on a scale of 0 – 10, he said it would be well past 11. Stewart also said, “day-to-day life is very hard. I can’t walk down the stairs. I can’t sit for too long. I never sleep.”
Massachusetts’ Law Regarding Arbitrary Compensation
Although Stewart’s burns cover more than 38 percent of his body, he never received compensation for them under Massachusetts’ law. This is because the law mandates that scarring is compensable only if the disfigurement touches a worker’s “face, neck, or hands.” It is likely that if Stewart’s scars reached any of those areas he would have been compensated an additional $15,000. “This is by far the most egregious case I’ve ever seen,” said Stewart’s lawyer James Morris. In the past, scar-based compensation in our state was more generous. This changed however with several legislative initiatives passed by Governor William Weld. Weld stated that his reforms were to help determine the “appropriateness” of medical treatment. Currently, a new bill has been introduced in the State Senate that seeks to expand benefits for disfigurement as serious as Stewart’s. The bill essentially seeks to eliminate the requirement that disfigurement compensation only apply where someone has suffered scarring on their “face, neck, or hands.”
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