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Alexandria City Public Schools v. Handel

Court of Appeals of Virginia

May 14, 2019



          Michael S. Bliley (Andrew M. Alexander; Siciliano, Ellis, Dyer & Boccarosse PLC, on briefs), for appellant.

          (Julie H. Heiden; Koonz, McKenney, Johnson, DePaolis & Lightfoot, LLP, on brief), for appellee. Appellee submitting on brief.

          Present Judges Huff, O'Brien and Senior Judge Haley Argued at Fredericksburg, Virginia


          GLEN A. HUFF JUDGE.

         Alexandria City Public Schools ("employer") appeals an award of workers' compensation benefits to Kerri Handel ("claimant") by the Virginia Workers' Compensation Commission. In a single assignment of error, employer argues the Commission erred in finding that claimant suffered a compensable injury to her right shoulder. Employer argues claimant failed to prove she suffered a sudden structural or mechanical change to her shoulder. Employer contends that claimant must demonstrate a sudden mechanical or structural change to each part of the body in which the claimant is experiencing pain for the injury to be compensable under the Workers' Compensation Act. This Court affirms the Commission because claimant must only prove her accident caused one sudden mechanical or structural change to her body to collect compensation for any injury caused by that accident. Proof of a "sudden mechanical or structural change in the body" is required only to establish that a claimant suffered an "injury by accident."

         I. BACKGROUND

         "Under settled principles of appellate review, we consider the evidence in the light most favorable to employee as the prevailing party before the commission." Layne v. Crist Elec. Contractor, Inc., 64 Va.App. 342, 345 (2015). So viewed, the evidence in the record shows the claimant was employed as a math teacher at T.C. Williams High School in the Alexandria City School District on April 24, 2014. On that date, claimant slipped on a puddle of hand sanitizer on her classroom floor and fell on her right side. She was then taken by ambulance to Alexandria Hospital for treatment of her injuries. Among the multiple injuries listed under "Final Diagnoses" on the hospital records from that visit is "Pain in joint, shoulder region."

         Claimant filed a notice of injury report with Alexandria City Public Schools on April 29, 2014, in which she indicated that her right ankle, knee, hip, shoulder, neck, and back were all injured in the fall. On April 30, 2014, claimant sought treatment from orthopedist Dr. David Hampton at which time she complained of pain throughout her right side, including her right shoulder, hip, knee, ankle, low back, and neck. Dr. Hampton evaluated claimant again in September 2016 for shoulder pain and concluded her pain was nerve related. Dr. Hampton then referred claimant to Dr. Ryan Jander for a second opinion. At her examination with Dr. Jander, claimant complained of pain originating in her shoulder and radiating down her arm with numbness in her hand. There were no abnormal results indicated by imaging of claimant's right shoulder done by either Dr. Hampton or Dr. Jander, but Dr. Jander concluded complainant suffered from a neurological condition in her shoulder and referred her to physical therapy.

         A hearing was held on November 9, 2016, before Deputy Commissioner Susan Cummins. Prior to that hearing, employer had stipulated to a compensable injury by accident to the claimant's right hip, neck, back, right ankle, and right knee but disputed claims for the right shoulder and a head injury. In February 2018, the deputy commissioner issued a letter opinion awarding claimant temporary total disability benefits and lifetime medical benefits for "injuries including but not limited to injuries to the right knee, right ankle, right hip, right shoulder, back, neck, head and for memory loss, migraines/headaches and a concussion/post-concussion syndrome." The deputy commissioner found that her "account of how she was injured is uncontroverted by the other evidence." The deputy commissioner further found that claimant had demonstrated "the necessary causal nexus between the accident and the claimant's right shoulder complaints" and that she had sustained an "injury by accident" to both her shoulder and head.

         Employer appealed the commissioner's decision and requested a full Commission review in April 2018. Employer argued claimant failed to demonstrate a structural or mechanical change in the shoulder. Nevertheless, the Commission unanimously agreed with the deputy commissioner that claimant had "established a compensable injury by accident to the right shoulder."

         This appeal followed.


         "The commission's determination of whether a claimant suffered 'an "injury by accident" presents a mixed question of law and fact, because it involves both factual findings and the application of law to those facts. The Commission's factual findings bind us as long as credible evidence supports them.'" Riverside Regional Jail Authority v. Dugger, 68 Va.App. 32, 37 (2017) (quoting Van Buren v. Augusta Cty., 66 Va.App. 441, 446 (2016)). "In determining whether credible evidence exists, [this C]ourt does not retry the facts, reweigh the preponderance of the evidence, or make its own determination of the credibility of the ...

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