A Brief Overview of Workers’ Compensation

After graduating cum laude from Providence College with a BA in political science, Kristin Swanson-Mace earned her juris doctor from the California Western School of Law, where she received awards in trusts and estates, and in civil procedure. Kristin Swanson-Mace today is a sole practitioner in Orlando, Florida, where her practice concentrates on defending employers and insurance companies in workers’ compensation cases.

At the outset of the Industrial Revolution, workers had to file civil lawsuits for compensation for on-the-job injuries, but employers had strong legal defenses. If it was determined that the worker or a co-worker was even slightly at fault, the employer bore no liability; likewise, workers were assumed to know and accept the risks inherent in any particular job, again relieving the employer from liability in all but the most egregious of cases. Nevertheless, these lawsuits gradually became more successful, and defending them became more costly and troublesome to manufacturing interests.

Prussia’s Chancellor Otto von Bismarck proposed the first set of formal workers’ compensation laws in 1871 and 1875, and other Western nations gradually adopted similar legislation, although they generally met with fierce opposition from manufacturing interests. Great Britain’s WC law, for example, was enacted in 1897 only after four years of vigorous struggle.

In the United States, the Employer Liability Acts of 1906 and 1908 weakened employers’ defenses, but the conventional wisdom in Congress was that except for workers engaged in interstate commerce, WC was an issue best left to the states. The first comprehensive state legislation didn’t appear until 1911, when Wisconsin and nine other states passed WC laws. Most states enacted their laws by 1920; the last state to do so was Mississippi, in 1948.

Claims in most states are handled by special WC boards established for that purpose, whose decisions can be appealed to the courts. They have evolved from defining compensable injuries as sudden industrial accidents to much broader language; Kentucky, for example, defines an injury as “any work-related harmful change in the human condition.” The system provides both for wage replacement and for employer payment of injured workers’ treatment and rehabilitation costs.