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The History of Workers' Compensation Law


Workers' compensation is far older than you might think. Ancient Sumerian tablets describe payments due to laborers for the loss of specific body parts. Cultures from Greece to China had laws for similar compensation. 

Unfortunately, by the Industrial Revolution, laws had become so restrictive that there was practically no situation in which the employer was considered at fault. Essentially, if any worker contributed in any way to the injury, there would be no compensation. Employers were protected to an alarming degree.

The tide began to turn in Prussia in the 1870s, where Chancellor Otto von Bismarck offered protections--first to workers in dangerous professions, and then more broadly, with the first modern workers' compensation system. The laws established a "no-fault" system of compensation for injury. The most important feature of this system was that it removed the worker's right to sue their employer. This became the model for all later workers' compensation laws.

The "no-fault" concept is the central factor of modern workers' compensation. This tenet states that accidents will happen, and the important thing is to address the financial repercussions of those accidents as fairly as possible. Employers must pay based on the worker's previous wages, and the worker cannot sue the employer for greater damages. 

In America, however, there was great resistance to the idea of workers' compensation. In the early 20th century, journalists and writers reported on how workers suffered the greatest economic impact from injuries even when the blame rested on the employer, which was most often the case. Crystal Eastman's 1910 book Work Accidents and the Law argued that workers' compensation could provide an economic incentive for employers to make workplaces safer. This position eventually won over labor groups, and by 1949, every state (48 at the time!) had enacted a workers' compensation law.

Workers' Compensation Today

In theory, workers' compensation laws exist to protect both workers and employers. They serve employers by limiting the financial risk of a worker being awarded unpredictable amounts through litigation following an injury. For workers, they provide a legal mechanism for compensation that doesn't rely on a long and costly lawsuit. 

Despite its long history, the law is still evolving. In Pennsylvania, 1996's Act 57 introduced impairment rating evaluations (IRE's) as a way for employers to shorten the amount of time an impaired worker could receive benefits. Over 20 years later, in 2017, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned this section of the law as unconstitutional. Justice continues to move on.

If you have been injured at work, you need an attorney who understands the intricacies of workers' compensation law. The team at Dugan & Associates has years of experience representing injured workers. They are ready to look at your case and help you get the compensation you deserve. Contact us for a consultation.

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