Injured Workers May Collect NC Workers' Comp for Permanent Partial Impairments
PAYMENT FOR PERMANENT PARTIAL IMPAIRMENT IN NC
A major benefit of North Carolina workers’ compensation is the entitlement of payment for permanent impairment to one or more parts of the body. North Carolina law sets out specifically (in rather a ghoulish cookbook fashion) the benefits available to the worker for impairment to his or her various body parts. The amount to be recovered for the loss of use of a body part is arrived at by a simple mathematical computation:
For instance, if a worker lost their thumb, he or she would be entitled to a sum for that loss equal to their “comp rate,” or two-thirds of their average weekly wage multiplied by 75. If a worker’s average weekly wage was $300, the comp rate would be $200 (two-thirds of $300). For the loss of a thumb, the worker would be entitled to $15,000 ($300 x 75). This is far less than one would expect from a jury, were a jury to determine and assess the loss of a thumb over a person’s lifetime in a trial in civil court.
It is not necessary that a body part be severed for there to be recovery for the total impairment of a body part. It is enough that the employee loses the use of the body part. For instance, the total paralysis of the thumb would be considered a “total loss” even though the thumb is not actually severed.
In most of the cases our workers' comp lawyers in Raleigh handle there is not a total loss of use of the body part, but only partial. A common example is the back. The schedule of benefits set out by the law provides a payment for 300 weeks for total loss of use of the back. It is rare to have a total loss of the back. More frequently, what we see is a partial impairment of the back. For instance, 10%. To arrive at the benefit to be paid to the worker for a 10% loss of use of the back, one would multiply 300 weeks times 10%. The resulting 30 weeks would then be multiplied by the worker’s compensation rate or two-thirds of the average weekly wage. In the case of a worker whose average weekly wage was $300, their comp rate would be $200, and this would be multiplied by 30 weeks to arrive at the sum of $6,000 to be paid for a 10% permanent loss of use of the back by this injured worker. Again, this is a figure much lower than we would expect from a North Carolina jury were these damages assessed outside the workers’ compensation arena.
The degree of permanent impairment is assessed only at the end of the “healing period.” This is determined after the worker has reached maximum medical improvement. In layperson’s terms, maximum medical improvement simply means that the worker’s condition has healed as much as it will ever heal, and that the worker’s condition will never improve above that level of maximum medical improvement. If the worker is not able to return to work even after the time he or she reaches maximum medical improvement, they will continue to receive their wage replacement benefits equal to two-thirds of their average weekly wage during the time he or she is out of work.
The benefit for permanent impairment to a part of the body is without regard to the worker’s ability to earn wages. If, for example, a worker suffered a permanent partial impairment of a body part but lost no wages and continued to work at his or her full salary (a very unlikely event), the worker would receive no salary continuation benefits, but would receive payment for the permanent partial impairment.
The extent of permanent impairment, sometimes referred to as the employee’s “rating,” is based upon the opinion of a physician determined based upon the rating guide published by the North Carolina Industrial Commission. Many times there are honest differences of opinion among physicians concerning the nature and extent of the worker’s impairment. If a worker is dissatisfied with the rating given by a doctor, the worker is entitled to a second opinion by the doctor of his or her choosing. The employer is responsible for paying the entire cost of the second opinion.
If there is a dispute among physicians as to the correct impairment rating, that issue can be decided by the Industrial Commission at the request of either party. For instance, if one doctor gives a permanent impairment rating to the back of 5% and another doctor gives an opinion of the impairment as 15%, the North Carolina Industrial Commission, sitting as a finder of the fact will decide the correct rating. The Commission could either rule that the impairment is 5%, or that the impairment is 15%, or that the impairment is somewhere in between. In many cases, the Industrial Commission averages the various ratings given by the doctors. However, this is not always the case and the Industrial Commission is free to agree with the opinion of any one doctor or can determine that the rate of impairment is somewhere between the rating given by any of the doctors.
The schedule of benefits for impairment of various body parts is set out below:
- Back 300 weeks
- Arm 240 weeks
- Hand 200 weeks
- Foot 144 weeks
- Leg 200 weeks
- Eye 120 weeks
- Thumb 75 weeks
- First or index finger 45 weeks
- Second or middle finger 40 weeks
- Third or ring finger 25 weeks
- Fourth or little finger 20 weeks
- Hearing (one ear) 70 weeks
- Hearing (both ears) 150 weeks
- Great toe 35 weeks
- Any other toe 10 weeks
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