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Warnken, LLC Attorneys at Law, Attorneys & Lawyers, Pikesville, MD

A Brief History of Workers’ Comp Laws

Not Just the Modern World

The idea of compensation for on the job injuries existed long before the evolvement of what today we know as western civilization. As Gregory P. Guyton points out in his article, the first known laws that compensated workers for on the job injuries date back to approximately 2050 B.C. in ancient Sumer, or what today would be Iraq. Under those laws, each human body part had a designated value attached to it, and one would be compensated accordingly depending on the gravity of the injury.

More Recent Developments

However, according to Alan Pierce, today’s workers’ compensation laws arguably owe their origin to Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck who in response to public demand, created the Employer’s Liability Law of 1871, followed by Workers’ Accident Insurance in 1884. Similar to US workers’ compensation laws today, Bismarck’s programs not only provided monetary benefits to injured workers, but also provided them with medical and rehabilitation benefits as well.

Despite the ancient roots of workers compensation laws, the realization of workers’ compensation rights through the passage of laws was nonexistent in the US until the turn of the 20th century. This is when various states began adopting Employer Liability Acts (ELAs) in response to the “unprecedented rate” of employment-related injuries that arose in the 19th century, during the industrialization of America.  See here. Before the passage of ELAs, workers injured on the job were often left with little to no recourse for receiving compensation for their injuries. Eventually, the passage of numerous state ELAs created the momentum for the first workers’ compensation law at the federal level, the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA) passed in 1908 by President Roosevelt.

Triangle Shirtwaist, among other tragedies

However, while the FELA took off successfully, many of the statewide ELAs being passed around the same time were eventually struck down as unconstitutional laws in violation of due process. At the expense of one of the larger tragedies in our nation’s history, this pattern would soon change. On March 25, 1911, The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City claimed the lives of 146 young garment workers. The staggering death toll was a result of the workers’ heartless managers, who had locked the exit doors in order to prevent workers from taking breaks.

The Great Compromise

Following this great tragedy, several states responded by finally completing workers’ compensation laws. The passing of these laws called for workers to give up their right to sue their employers in exchange for their employers’ agreement to provide prompt and dependable compensation for on the job injuries. This tradeoff between workers and employers would come to be known by many as “The Great Compromise.”

The effect of the new laws, meant that liability for workplace accidents would now shift from a negligence liability structure, where proving employer fault was a requirement, to a form of strict liability, where employers would now be required to compensate their employees for all injuries arising out of or in the course of employment.  See here. This change in the need to prove fault essentially served to expedite the process of dealing with work-related injury claims made by employees against their employers. Due to the overall success and expeditious nature of these new laws, by 1950 almost every state in the US had adopted some form of workers compensation law.

For the most part, the basic structure of the American workers’ compensation system has remained unchanged since the passage of the FELA in 1908 and is overall, a success in the eyes of employers and employees alike. The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) might stand as the biggest change in the landscape of workers’ compensation law since the passing of the FELA. The ADA extended the reach of workers compensation by requiring that employers make “reasonable accommodation” for workers with disabilities. Despite this language however, no legal standards for the definition of “reasonable” are provided by the ADA, leading to much debate as to what exactly the law requires from employers.

A Changing World

One thing is clear though, the ever-changing landscape of the American workforce means that workers compensation laws will have to continue evolving in order to meet modern needs. The need to compensate for back-injuries resulting from grueling manual labor will likely dwindle over time; the need to compensate for the loss of vision resulting from long hours in front of a computer will likely rise. Whether workers compensation laws will adapt to recognize these changes, is yet to be seen.

Warnken, LLC – Workers’ Compensation Lawyers

Warnken, LLC handles workers’ compensation cases on behalf of injured workers.  If you have been injured on the job, please contact us.  We can help you navigate the complex world of workers’ compensation.  We would also like to help you maximize your benefits.