Discrete Event vs. Injury Over Time: The Supreme Court Weighs In

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On August 26, 2021, the Supreme Court of Virginia issued an Opinion in City of Charlottesville, et al. v. Sclafani, Record No. 200791 (Va. Aug. 26, 2021), which provides additional guidance regarding the Van Buren “injury by accident” line of cases. 

After a series of appeals and remands, the Court of Appeals affirmed the Commission’s determination that Sclafani, a police officer, sustained a compensable injury by accident when he injured his left shoulder during a four-hour afternoon training session.*  During that session, the claimant’s activities included being put on the ground and handcuffed, picked up, and moved away. 

The Supreme Court disagreed with the reasoning of the Court of Appeals, noting that the Court of Appeals seems to establish a “bright line rule that a four hour time period is sufficiently temporally precise to establish a compensable injury under the Act.” 

The Supreme Court found that asserting that an injury occurred over a four hour time period where multiple potential causative events occurred is not enough to establish compensability. 

The Supreme Court found that the proper focus should not be on the specific time frame in which the accident occurred, but on the specific event that caused the injury. 

In Sclafani, the Supreme Court affirmed the award of benefits to the claimant, but noted that the lower courts had reached the right result for the wrong reason

The Supreme Court found that there was evidence that the claimant’s pain began after he was “picked up a little weird,” and that he attributed his injury to that specific event.  The Supreme Court noted that the employer did not present evidence to rebut the claimant’s testimony that the injury occurred as a result of that specific event. 

The Supreme Court found that the evidence that the pain began when the claimant was picked up on this occasion established a compensable injury by accident and justifies the award of benefits, as opposed to the lower courts’ incorrect finding that it was a result of the four hour training session.

It is important to note that the Court specified that this opinion does not reverse Van Buren In Van Buren, a firefighter was awarded benefits when he injured his shoulder during a forty-five minute period spent removing a large man from a shower.  In a footnote of the Sclafani Opinion, the Court notes that the facts in Van Buren established a single causative event over a period of time, as opposed to numerous discrete events (such as in Sclafani).

* Originally, the Commission found that the claimant sustained an injury by accident during his eight hours of training during the workday.  The Court of Appeals found that 8 hours (with a lunch break in the middle) did not constitute a distinct period during which an injury by accident could occur (specifically finding that it lacked ‘sufficient temporal precision’), and remanded the matter to the Commission for a finding that the injury occurred during the 4 hour afternoon training session that occurred after the lunch break.

Practical Tip

When assessing cases, it is important to:

  • Establish details regarding the period of time at issue;
  • Identify what activities took place over that period of time; and,
  • Determine whether the injury is attributed to a specific action/event versus generally attributed to all activities undertaken during the relevant period of time.

Read the previous edition of Workers' Compensation Case Watch:

Court of Appeals: Pharmacies are Health Care Providers Subject to One Year Statute of Limitations

Thumbnail_300x300_Amanda Belliveau

Amanda T. Belliveau is the Chair of the Workers’ Compensation Practice Group. Amanda received her J.D. from William & Mary School of Law and her undergraduate degree from Bucknell University. She handles all levels of workers’ compensation litigation, and she is frequently asked to lecture on advanced workers’ compensation topics. Amanda has served as the Chair and the Vice Chair of the Workers’ Compensation section for the Virginia Association of Defense Attorneys. She was named a Super Lawyers Rising Star for workers’ compensation each year since 2016.