VRSA partners with members to file amicus brief with Virginia Supreme Court

Last year the Virginia Risk Sharing Association (VRSA) partnered with member Prince William County Schools (self-insured for workers’ compensation) to share in the cost of hiring defense counsel to file an amicus brief with the Virginia Supreme Court.

Ralph Whitt, Esquire, with Whitt & Del Bueno filed the brief, appealing the Court of Appeal Alexandria City Public Schools vs. Handel decision, which significantly changed established case law regarding the definition of an “injury.”

This decision adversely affected the defense of claims and increased workers’ compensation claims costs for our members (all employers).  Without the amicus brief, the chances that the Virginia Supreme Court would grant the appeal and hopefully reverse this opinion was unlikely.

Prior to the Court of Appeal decision; to establish a compensable “injury by accident,” a claimant had to prove:

  1. An identifiable accident;
  2. That occurs at a reasonably definite time;
  3. Resulting in an obvious sudden mechanical or structural change in the body; and
  4. Had a causal connection between the incident and the bodily change.

This Court of Appeals opinion expanded the definition of  an “injury” and held that a claimant need only prove one (“a single”) ‘sudden mechanical or structural change’ anywhere in the body to establish an ‘injury by accident’ for all injuries to be caused by an accident.

The Court held there was no need to prove a sudden structural or mechanical change in each part of the body affected by the accident.

For example, an employee could drop something on their foot, fracturing their foot, but also experience back pain, and the back problems would be caused by the accident.

The Court reasoned that after a claimant established an accident “and suffers one sudden mechanical or structural change, all injuries flowing from the accident even if unconnected to the ‘mechanical or structural change’ are ‘injuries by accident’ and compensable.”

In the amicus brief, our attorney articulated reasons why every facet of the opinion was wrong – with supporting case law – and in March 2020, the Virginia Supreme Court granted the appeal.

Defense counsel then prepared and filed an opening amicus brief to the Virginia Supreme Court, which included an even more thorough analysis of the law and the definition of “injury,” pointing out both statutory and case law definitions that supported our position.

Oral arguments were held by the Virginia Supreme Court on Feb. 17, 2020, and on Oct. 15, 2020, the Virginia Supreme Court issued their opinion reversing the Court of Appeal, reinstating the definition of an “injury” that has existed for decades.

The Virginia Supreme Court held that the “structural or mechanical change” is itself the injury. Without such a change in a body part, there is no injury.

A claimant must prove a sudden, obvious mechanical or structural change for each body part alleged to have been injured in the accident. The Virginia Supreme Court’s decision makes it clear that the need for a structural or mechanical change is a crucial part of any “injury by accident” claim.

The Supreme Court adopted, almost verbatim, the argument set forth in our Amicus Brief.

“We believe that our efforts were instrumental in getting the appeal granted,” said VRSA Director of Workers’ Compensation Robin Duvall. “By reversing the Court of Appeals decision through citing the cases our amicus brief made, this decision significantly benefits all members.”