Injuries sustained by a Charlottesville police officer during a training exercise are compensable, ruled the Virginia Supreme Court recently, despite claims that the officer could not pinpoint the exact moment of his injury.
The Supreme Court opinion likely ends a years long legal battle stemming from an 2017 incident in which William Sclafani was allegedly injured during a training exercise.
According to court documents, Sclafani, a Charlottesville police officer at the time, took part in a SWAT team training activity in which he played the role of the suspect in various scenarios throughout a nine-hour work day. Sclafani was repeatedly put on the ground, handcuffed with his hands behind his back and then picked up while still in handcuffs, experiencing some discomfort before his injury worsened in the following days.
Eventually Sclafani’s injury required surgery for rotator cuff tears and traumatic impingement syndrome and he subsequently filed a workers compensation claim, seeking an award of medical benefits and temporary total disability benefits.
The city denied this claim and, according to documents, argued that Sclafani was not entitled to compensation because he could “not identify the specific incident that led to his injury.”
However, testimony from one of Sclafani’s depositions indicated that during the last scenario, he “was picked up a little weird” and “felt some discomfort.” When he was subsequently asked if that was the incident that he believed resulted in his injury, Sclafani said, “Oh, yeah. There’s no doubt.”
Per court documents, after a hearing before a deputy commissioner from the Virginia Workers’ Compensation Commission, Sclafani’s claim was initially denied because, although Sclafani had clearly suffered an injury, he failed to establish an identifiable incident or sudden precipitating event that caused the injury. Sclafani requested a review by the full Commission, which reversed the deputy commissioner’s ruling and entered an award of benefits. The award amount is not specified in the court documents.
The case then worked its way through the court system, with the city appealing eventually a decision made in favor of Sclafani by the Virginia Court of Appeals in 2019.
In August, Justice Cleo E. Powell affirmed the Court of Appeals’ decision while also indicating that she agreed with the city’s argument that Sclafania had not indicated a precise moment of injury.
Despite this, Powell wrote that the evidence that Sclafani had been injured during training “was uncontradicted and we cannot say that it was inherently incredible or inconsistent with the other facts in the record.”
“The City instead focused on the fact that Sclafani admitted that he did not immediately feel a pop or crack or any intense pain at the time the injury occurred,” Powell wrote. “At the same time, however, the City offered no evidence to establish that such symptoms would have suddenly manifested as a result of the injury suffered by Sclafani.”
One of the reasons the Supreme Court of Virginia have required claimants to identify the specific incident that caused their injury is because allowing compensation for injuries gradually received would impose upon the last employer the burden of pensioning every workman worn out or invalided by unhealthful exposure on the part of former employers, Powell wrote.
Powell also ruled that an argument from the city that the Court of Appeals and the Commission erred in failing to find that the Sclafani’s injury was a cumulative injury that resulted from repetitive trauma was moot.
“When the definition of cumulative injury is considered in conjunction with the reasoning for requiring the identification of the specific incident, it is clear that an injury caused by an identifiable incident is mutually exclusive of an injury caused by repetitive trauma,” Powell wrote. “Thus, our determination that Sclafani sufficiently identified the specific incident that caused his injury essentially renders the city’s argument on this issue moot.”
It is unclear how much Sclafani will be compensated and an answer is unlikely to be provided given provisions of the state code that prevents records from the Virginia Workers’ Compensation Commission from being open to the public.
A spokesman for the city could not be reached by press deadline.