What Do You Think: Did Teacher Experience ‘Sudden Mechanical or Structural Change’?

Frank Ferreri

Alexandria, VA (WorkersCompensation.com) – When a worker has pain following a workplace accident, how much does that pain have to connect to a pinpoint moment when something specific went wrong?

That question recently came before Virginia’s highest court, which had to address whether an accident actually caused the injury at issue in a case.

A math teacher for a Virginia school district slipped on a puddle on her classroom floor and fell on her right side. She was taken by ambulance to the hospital for injuries related to her ankle, knee, hip, shoulder, neck, and back.

The shoulder injury continued to bother the teacher more than two years later, and she complained of pain radiating down her arm with numbness in her hand. An orthopedist concluded that she had nerve issues and referred her to another orthopedist for a second opinion. This orthopedist concluded that the teacher had a neurological condition in her shoulder and prescribed her physical therapy.

The teacher filed a workers’ compensation claim, and a deputy commissioner for Virginia’s workers’ compensation commission ruled that there was no dispute on how the teacher experienced the injury.

The commissioner also found that there was a connection between the accident the teacher had on the job and the shoulder complaints she presented. Additionally, the commissioner determined that the teacher experienced an “injury by accident” to her shoulder.

The district appealed to the full commission, challenging the evidence the commissioner used in reaching the decision. The commission agreed with the first ruling, determining that the teacher “established a compensable injury by accident to the right shoulder.”

The district then appealed to court, and the court concluded that the teacher had proven “a single ‘sudden mechanical or structural change’ anywhere in her body,” meaning that her shoulder injury was connected to the accident and, therefore, compensable.

In this court’s view, once there is a sudden mechanical or structural change, all injuries flowing from the accident, even if they are unconnected to the change, are compensable.

The district appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court, taking issue with the lower court’s interpretation of the “sudden mechanical or structural change” standard.

In Virginia, to establish a compensable injury by accident, a worker must prove that she’s experienced “an obvious sudden mechanical or structural change in the body” and produce evidence demonstrating a connection between the incident and the bodily change.

Did the teacher’s injury constitute a sudden mechanical or structural change?

A. Yes. A worker only needs to show that that there is at least one sudden mechanical or structural change to cover each injury that is caused by an accident.

B. No. An accident may occur without causing an injury, and a worker may experience an injury that isn’t caused by an accident so the mechanical or structural change must tie to the injury in question.

If you selected B, you were on the same page as Virginia’s top court in Alexandria City Public Schools v. Handel, No. 190957 (Va. 10/15/20). According to the court, the lower court erred by ruling that workers don’t need to prove a structural change in every body part affected by an accident.

The court explained that the “sudden mechanical or structural change” standard requires workers to show that they experienced the injury in question “at a time that can be pinpointed with reasonable certainty.” 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,” according to the court.

Because the teacher’s case didn’t pinpoint such a change in a specific body part, the court could find no injury for which she could be compensated.

This feature does not provide legal advice.

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