VIRGINIA SUPREME COURT REJECTS EXPANSIVE DEFINITION OF “INJURY BY ACCIDENT”
Since the Full Commission issued its first Opinion in the case of Sclafani v. City of Charlottesville in 2018, the case has captured the attention of the workers’ compensation bar, as it appeared to be the latest in a series of cases in which the Commission and the Court of Appeals had been expanding the definition of “injury by accident.”
Previous cases had blurred the definition of “injury by accident” from an event that is bounded within the temporal limits of an identifiable piece of work – in most cases very brief or even instantaneous, to a new definition that allowed for an injury by accident to be something that occurred over the course of a longer period. In the Van Buren case, the Court of Appeals found that an injury could take 45 minutes to occur when an EMS worker experienced back pain after a 45-minute struggle to extricate a patient from a shower stall. From there, the Commission and the Court of Appeals began to find a less and less restrictive definition of injury by accident, until in cases like Dugger and Bandy they held that claimant’s proved an injury by accident where the injurious event could not be fixed any more specifically than within a 4-hour period.
This seemed to be the new direction of the law of injury by accident until August 26, 2021, when the Virginia Supreme Court issued its Opinion in the City of Charlottesville v. William Sclafani.
Sclafani, a law enforcement officer, contended that he injured his shoulder during a day of training in which he was performing the role of “takedown guy” – the person that trainees would use to confront, take to the ground, handcuff and lift up from the ground in various scenarios.
He denied experiencing pain during training, either during the four-hour morning session or the four-hour session after lunch. His first experience of pain occurred in the car, driving home from work. He was subsequently diagnosed with shoulder impingement syndrome.
Ford Richardson, on behalf of the City of Charlottesville, defended the claim on the basis that the claimant did not prove an “injury by accident” because he did not describe an injury resulting from an event bounded with the requisite degree of “rigid temporal specificity” that the Supreme Court described as a requirement for injury by accident in its 1989 Opinion in Morris v. Morris.
The Deputy Commissioner who heard the case denied the claim. The Full Commission reversed, in an opinion that suggested that the evidence showed an injury occurring over the entirety of the eight-hour workday, which it held could be considered to be rigid enough temporal precision in which to find an “injury by accident.”
The Court of Appeals rejected the Commission’s holding that an 8-hour workday was a sufficiently precise period in which to find that an injury occurred and remanded to the Commission to consider whether there was a shorter period in which to find an injury by accident. The Court specifically suggested that the four-hour post-lunch period seemingly was such a time frame. On remand, the Commission found as suggested: that the claimant was injured over the four-hour post-lunch period.
The City again appealed to the Court of Appeals, which affirmed, while declining to consider the issue of “injury by accident” on a second appeal, holding that its previous Opinion was binding as to that issue under the Law of the Case Doctrine.
The City appealed to the Supreme Court on the Court of Appeals’ use of the Law of the Case Doctrine, and as to its decision that a four-hour period was sufficient to find an injury by accident.
The Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals regarding the Law of the Case Doctrine, holding that the Court should have considered the City of Charlottesville’s arguments on the second appeal to that Court. Because the Law of the Case Doctrine did not apply, the Court went on to consider the issue of what does – and does not – constitute an injury by accident.
The Supreme Court made two distinct decisions on this issue. First, it completely rejected the recent expansion to the definition of “injury by accident” that allowed for a four-hour window of time in which to find an injury by accident. The Court acknowledged that exceptions exist, such as the rare facts of the 45 minute-long injury in the Van Buren case or a single, continuous exposure to the cause of injury can be an “injury by accident,” even if it occurs over a long period, such as a chemical inhalation. Those exceptions noted, the Supreme Court unequivocally reaffirmed its ruling in Morris v. Morris that an injury by accident requires proof of injury as a result of a “single work activity” which must be a specific occurrence that can be temporally fixed with reasonable accuracy.
Second, on the facts of this case, the Court held that, while the Commission and the Court of Appeals’ reasoning was wrong, the evidentiary record was sufficient to show an injury by accident occurred because of statements that the claimant made during the afternoon session regarding one specific event in which he felt like he got picked up a “little weird” and felt a “twinge.” The Court determined that the record supported that particular incident – and not the entire afternoon period – as being the occurrence of the injury by accident, bound by sufficient temporal precision.
This case represents a significant shift back to the law of injury by accident as set forth in Morris and away from the more expansive definition of “temporal precision” from Dugger and its progeny.
The court’s decision again underscores the need to occasionally challenge the “established” jurisprudence of the lower courts at the Supreme Court. Though deferential to lower courts, the Supreme Court has repeatedly shown its willingness to establish boundaries where other courts go astray.
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