For decades, the Courts have been endeavoring to define an injury by accident in Virginia in the realm of workers’ compensation. This issue has garnered a great deal of attention and continues to be litigated through our judicial process. It is the million dollar question in which the answer has become more obscure and unsettled with time.

Under Virginia law, to prove an injury by accident, a claimant must prove 1) an identifiable incident, 2) that occurs at some reasonably definite time, 3) an obvious sudden mechanical or structural change to the body, and 4) a causal connection between the incident and bodily change.

The Virginia Supreme Court recently decided a case that seeks to bring clarity on the third element of a sudden mechanical or structural change to the body. In Alexandria City Public Schools v. Kerri Handel, the claimant was a math teacher at T.C. Williams High School in the City of Alexandria. Record No. 190957 (2020). The claimant slipped on a puddle on her classroom floor and fell on her right side resulting in multiple injuries.

Amongst the multiple injuries, the injury being disputed was an alleged injury to the right shoulder. The claimant alleged pain in the joint, shoulder region. The claimant visited her first orthopedist who assessed shoulder pain that was nerve related and referred the claimant to another orthopedist for a second opinion. The second orthopedist detected no abnormalities in the medical imaging of the right shoulder.

The Deputy Commissioner ruled that there was no dispute in the evidence as to how the claimant was injured, a causal connection between the accident and shoulder complaints, and that the claimant suffered an injury by accident. Thus, the Deputy Commissioner found in favor of the claimant.

The school system appealed the Deputy Commissioner’s decision to the Full Commission. The school system asserted that there was insufficient evidence to establish a structural or mechanical change to the right shoulder. The Full Commission held that there was no error with the Deputy Commissioner’s Opinion and affirmed the ruling. The Full Commission rationalized that the claimant testified to falling on her right side and she was diagnosed with right shoulder pain.

The school system appealed to the Virginia Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals held that the claimant does not need to prove a mechanical or structural change in each body part affected by a work accident as long as at least one sudden or mechanical change is evident and each injury is caused by the accident. The Court concluded that because the claimant proved a single sudden mechanical or structural change anywhere on her body, she basically established an injury by accident. Accordingly, the evidence that the right shoulder was causally connected to the accident was compensable even without proof that the shoulder injury was connected to the proven mechanical or structural change.

The school system appealed the Court of Appeals ruling to the Virginia Supreme Court. The Supreme Court found that the Court of Appeals erred in its ruling. The Supreme Court held that the structural or mechanical change is the injury, when it produces harm or pain or a lessened facility of the natural use of any bodily activity or capability. Essentially, the Supreme Court held that without such a change in the body, there is no injury. Presently, this case has been remanded back to the Court of Appeals for further proceedings.

It is apparent that the Commission and Court of Appeals have been meticulously attempting to expand the definition of an injury by accident. Handel is just another example of their efforts in this venture. Fortunately, the Supreme Court’s ruling provides a glimmer of hope that the Court may cease this continued expansion. Moving forward, Handel may provide more clarity in this painstaking pursuit of defining an injury by accident in workers’ compensation. As the Supreme Court made it clear, a structural or mechanical change is the injury.

We will continue to monitor this significant case and provide you with updates as this case continues to journey through the appellate process.

Should you have any questions about the issues discussed here or other legal issues, please do not hesitate to contact the lawyers at Ford Richardson.

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