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Mechanical or Structural Change Element of Worker’s Compensation Claims

February 16, 2021

For almost sixty-five years Virginia’s Supreme Court required workers’ compensation claimants to show, in part, a obvious sudden mechanical or structural change in a part of the body as a result of an occurrence. However, in a 2019 ruling the Court of Appeals (Virginia’s intermediate appellate court) held that a claimant need only show sudden mechanical or structural change in one part of the body, and that doing so could support an award of benefits arising from injuries sustained in that accident to other parts of the body. In the 2019 ruling, for example, the Court of Appeals held that a showing of mechanical or structural change in another body part justified an award for injury to a claimant’s shoulder.

The Supreme Court in Alexandria City Public Schools v. Handel rejected the Court of Appeal’s attempt to detach the mechanical or structural change element from the specific body part for which compensation was sought. The Court reasoned that the mechanical or structural change is the injury (not merely a requirement to establish injury), and that in the absence of such change benefits cannot be awarded for injury to a specific body part.

The Court’s decision in Handel highlights the importance of careful attention when analyzing the evidence allegedly supporting a claimant’s injuries to each body part, as evidence supporting a claim for one body part is not sufficient to support a claim for all.