Virginia’s Elusive Definition of “Injury by Accident”

The Full Commission’s Opinion in Woodmancy v. Jett’s Specialty Contracting, JCN: VA00001945163 (July 7, 2023) is yet the latest example of the Commission’s application of definition of “injury by accident” in Virginia. For years the definition of “injury by accident” was quite straightforward requiring claimant to establish a single, identifiable incident. The most often cited case for this proposition was Morris v. Morris, 238 Va. 578 (1989). However, beginning with the case of Van Buren v. Augusta County, Record No.: 1975-15-3 (July 19, 2016) we began to see an erosion of the definition of “injury by accident.” This author believes that many of the cases beginning with Van Buren improperly interpreted previous case law.

The Woodmancy Opinion is one of the latest examples of the Commission’s application of current day “injury by accident” case law. In Woodmancy the claimant, a plumber, testified that he experienced low back pain as a result of working in a bent forward position over ductwork over the course of six hours. Asked at the hearing how he injured himself, the claimant testified, “[s]tanding up on top of the ladder, bent over the ductwork, I was trying to lift up these heavy valves.” Seeking clarification, the claimant was asked to describe “What happened when you [were] doing this on that particular day,” and he testified, “Just for being up there for so many hours bent over and then trying to lift these valves up, I just believe I pulled something.”

The Deputy Commissioner denied the claim finding that claimant’s back injury resulted from cumulative and repetitive trauma of installing valves in tight quarters for six hours.

The Full Commission in affirming the finding of the Deputy Commissioner offered the following rationale:

. . . the claimant argues that he proved his work accident was the result of a singular incident which occurred during the course of covered employment. The claimant points to his testimony that he “just believed [he] pulled something” when asked to describe his injury. The claimant argues that at that moment, when he felt something pull in his lower back, he sustained a compensable injury by accident. We find the claimant mischaracterizes the evidence. Rather, the claimant described remaining in an awkward position while standing on a ladder and bent forward installing a valve in the ceiling for a period of six hours. During the course of those six hours, the claimant developed back pain without association with any specific causative event. Testimony that the claimant maintained an awkward position, with no other details showing a specific, identifiable incident, is insufficient to prove an injury by accident. We find the claimant failed to prove a compensable injury by accident.

The current state of the law as to definition of “injury by accident” appears to be as follows:

  1. Repetitive and cumulative trauma (the same motion over and over) over time is still not considered a compensable “injury by accident.”
  2. Varying activities (those that are not repetitive) over a discrete period of time with no interruptions in that period of time may constitute an “injury by accident.”
  3. Claimants’ suffering a sudden mechanical change in the body as a result of a specific identifiable incident continues to constitute a compensable “injury by accident.”
  4. To prevail on a theory of varying activities over a discrete period of time without interruption, claimant must attribute the entirety of that collected period of activities as resulting in his alleged injury.

This author predicts that we will continue to see the appellate courts weigh in on the definition of “injury by accident” and hopefully return us back to 1996 when the definition was much clearer as articulated in the Morris v. Morris decision.

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