Rigid Temporal Precision: The Evolution of Defining an “Injury by Accident” in Virginia Workers’ Compensation Law

In 2016, the Court of Appeals issued an Opinion in Van Buren v. Augusta County, 66 Va. App. 441 (2016), holding that a claimant proved a “sudden and identifiable” injury by accident despite the claimant being unable to identify when his injury occurred within a 30 to 45-minute period of varying exertions. The Court held that, under certain circumstances, that 30 to 45-minute time period could be considered sufficient to show that the injury occurred “at some reasonably definite time.”

Subsequently, there have been several decisions that demonstrate the Court of Appeals’ efforts to evolve and define the sort of cases in which a broader than usual time frame can be used to establish the occurrence of an injury. In two recent Opinions, the Court began to weigh in on the outer limits of how broad a time period an injured worker can claim and still prove a “reasonably definite time.” The two Opinions the Court issued were Department of Motor Vehicles v. Bandy, Record No. 1878-18-2 (April 30, 2019) (unpublished) and City of Charlottesville v. Sclafani, Record No. 1999-18-3 (July 23, 2019).

In Department of Motor Vehicles v. Bandy, Record No. 1878-18-2 (April 30, 2019) (unpublished), the Court considered a case in which the claimant sustained a fractured wrist during a whole-day training session for DMV law enforcement officers. During the morning session of training, the claimant performed several maneuvers that involved twisting his hand and wrist backwards and forcibly bending his wrist forward. He also threw punches at another trainee who blocked the punches with his arms. There was a break between sessions for lunch. Following the lunch break, the claimant performed several different drills that involved punching rubber mannequins multiple times.

Between an hour and ninety minutes after the training ended, the claimant began to experience pain in his wrist. The next morning, his wrist was swollen. In that case, the parties agreed that the injury did not occur from repetitive trauma, and the only issue before the Court was whether the Commission erred in finding that the claimant had proven that the injury occurred within a reasonably definite time.

The Full Commission’s Opinion appeared to suggest that the claimant’s injury was compensable because the entire 8-hour training session would be acceptable temporal precision to prove an injury by accident. The Court of Appeals affirmed the Full Commission’s decision, but in doing so, held that the Commission’s statement about an 8-hour period being discrete enough to prove a “reasonably definite time” in which the injury occurred was not their holding, but instead was non-binding dicta. Instead, the Court held that the Commission found that the injury occurred at some point in the afternoon session, a four-hour period, which the Court determined was, under the circumstances, a “reasonably definite time.”

In his concurring Opinion, Judge Russell stated that an 8-hour period would not be a “reasonably definite time” in which to describe the occurrence of an accident. In reaching that conclusion, Judge Russell noted that an injury that is described as happening at some undefined point in an entire eight-hour work day renders the employer unable to investigate and defend the claim and increases the risk of fraud.

More recently, the Court issued a published Opinion in City of Charlottesville v. Sclafani, Record No. 1999-18-3 (July 23, 2019). Our Firm is acting as defense counsel in this matter. In that case, the claimant was a police officer with the City of Charlottesville. After the end of an 8-hour SWAT training session, he felt pain in his left shoulder and left arm. During the entire session, he was acting in the role of “take down guy” – the suspect who was taken to the ground, cuffed, and brought back up to his feet, in various scenarios. There was a lunch hour between the four-hour morning session and the four-hour afternoon session. Mr. Sclafani testified that he experienced problems during the four hours before lunch. At some point in the afternoon session, he testified he experienced a “tweak” but no pain. He first experienced pain in his shoulder when he was in his car after the training ended. He confirmed that at no point did he experience a “pop” or other sudden onset of pain during his work day.

The Deputy Commissioner held that Mr. Sclafani had not proven an “injury” occurred within any reasonably bounded time frame, as the evidence did not establish any specific time within the entire 8-hour training in which the injury occurred. The Full Commission reversed the Deputy Commissioner’s decision. Citing their own Opinion in Bandy (the Court of Appeals Opinion had not yet been issued), the Full Commission reversed the Deputy Commissioner and found the claim compensable, declaring that an 8-hour period constituted temporal precision to support the finding of an injury by accident.

The Court of Appeals held that an 8-hour period was not a narrow enough period in which to find an injury by accident. However, the Court remanded the case to the Commission and directed the Commission to make further findings of fact, including whether a shorter period could be found in the record to establish the claimed injury with more precision.

The Sclafani matter remains in litigation, so the final outcome of that case has yet to be determined. Nevertheless, it is evident that the law surrounding the issue of an “injury by accident” continues to evolve in the wake of Van Buren and its progeny.

We will continue to provide you with updates on Sclafani and relevant case law pertaining to this controversial and important topic in Virginia workers’ compensation law. Should you have any questions about this case or other legal issues, please do not hesitate to contact the lawyers at Ford Richardson.

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