Firefighter Entitled To Workers’ Compensation Benefits

Robert Van Buren was a firefighter for Augusta County, Virginia. While on duty on July 25, 2014, he responded to a call requesting assistance for an elderly man who had fallen in the shower. The man weighed approximately 400 pounds and had broken his leg during the fall. When Van Buren arrived, the man was crumpled awkwardly in the shower, his broken limb crushed under the weight of his body. For the next 30 to 45 minutes, Van Buren and his colleagues used a combination of improvisation, brute strength, and equipment to rescue the injured man.

Initially, Van Buren and another firefighter used a sheet as a sling, balancing on the ledge of the shower, looping the sheet under the injured man’s arms, then elevating and holding the man to relieve pressure on his leg. From there, Van Buren helped maneuver the man onto a towel, then onto a flat-bottomed, flexible stretcher. Van Buren and the others slowly dragged and pushed this stretcher the length of the hallway, along the floor.

Once Van Buren had dealt with the crisis and loaded the injured man into the ambulance, he noticed pain in his arm. Over the next several months, he visited various medical professionals: a nurse practitioner at his family doctor’s office, a physical therapist, his family doctor, and doctors at a hospital affiliated with the University of Virginia. In each instance, Van Buren described being hurt while assisting the man during the rescue on July 25, 2014. Ultimately, an MRI revealed a disc herniation at C5-6. Doctors at the University of Virginia surgically removed the herniated disc material in October of 2014 and performed both a hemilaminotomy and a foraminotomy.

Van Buren filed a workers’ compensation claim. The City disputed the claim, and Van Buren appealed to the Virginia Court of Appeals. The Court’s decision turned on the restrictive wording of Virginia’s workers’ compensation laws, which allow benefits only for injuries “by accident arising out of and in the course of the employment.” The County argued that Van Buren’s herniated disc did not result from a specific, identifiable work-related incident, but rather “could have occurred as a result of one of the numerous activities he performed during that period, or as a result of a combination of some or all of those activities.”

The Court found critical the fact that Van Buren “was engaged in a variety of actions that involved lifting, holding, twisting, pulling, pushing, grabbing, and bending. Second, Van Buren’s injury was not the result of cumulative events, because the 45-minute period during which Van Buren aided the injured man provided the necessary rigidity of temporal precision to constitute one event. Third, Van Buren saw a physician who diagnosed his injury as resulting directly from work undertaken on a certain date, during a specific event.

“Contrary to the City’s argument, we find the entire rescue undertaken by Van Buren was one piece of work and the entire 45-minute period was one event, not numerous discrete events. We find that this event was an identifiable incident and that Van Buren’s disc herniation was a sudden mechanical or structural change in the body. To require Van Buren to pinpoint the exact moment of the onset of pain during an adrenaline-fueled rescue attempt would yield a ridiculous and unjust result.”

Van Buren v. Augusta County, 2016 WL 3918754 (Va. App. 2016).