The History of Workers' Compensation Claims & Lawsuits


Have you ever wondered what happened to employees before workers’ compensation existed to protect their rights to medical treatment and paid time off? Surprisingly, workers’ compensation isn’t as modern a construct as you might think. Laws that outline compensation for injured workers date all the way back to 2050 B.C. Here’s a brief look at the history of workers’ compensation that shows how this system has become ingrained in the American workplace.

Ancient Times

Long before America was even discovered, ancient Greek, Roman, Arab, and Chinese laws provided compensation schedules that outlined precise payments for specific worker injuries. For example, the value of a lost ear was based on its surface area, and the loss of a thumb was worth half the value of a finger. During the Middle Ages, these laws fell by the wayside as lords often determined what, if any, injuries were worthy of compensation.

Industrial Revolution

As the Industrial Revolution gained momentum across Europe and America, dangerous work environments became commonplace and injuries were catastrophic. While laws for compensating injuries did exist, they were extremely restrictive and hurt workers rarely received payment. The following principles dictated which injuries qualified for compensation:

  1. Contributory negligence: The worker was not entitled to compensation if he was responsible for his own injury, regardless of how hazardous the machinery or work environment was.

  2. The “fellow servant” rule: The worker was not entitled to compensation if his injuries resulted from the action or negligence of a fellow employee.

  3. Assumption of risk: The worker was not entitled to compensation if he signed a contract accepting the hazardous nature of the work.

These dark times eventually came to an end when Chancellor Otto von Bismarck of Prussia implemented the Employers’ Liability Law of 1871, which offered social protection for workers in factories, quarries, mines, and railroads. Bismarck was also responsible for Workers’ Accident Insurance in 1884 and Public Pension Insurance a few years later, which provided the foundation for modern workers’ compensation.

Workers’ Compensation in America

Bismarck successfully ignited the spread of workers’ compensation law in Europe. The Employer’s Liability Act of 1880 and the Workers Compensation Act of 1893 were pushed through British Parliament before the turn of the century. However, laws for compensating injured workers were slower to take hold in America. It wasn’t until after people read Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel The Jungle, which exposed the horrors of working in slaughterhouses, that Congress took action.

The Employers’ Liability Acts of 1906 and 1908 made contributory negligence guidelines less restrictive. Then it was up to the states to determine their own laws. Wisconsin passed the first comprehensive workers’ compensation law in 1911, followed by nine other states in the same year. Mississippi was the last to pass workers’ compensation legislation in 1948. These laws required employers to provide medical and wage replacement benefits for injured workers, and most states continue to require it today.

You are protected by the workers’ compensation system

California is one of the many states that require employers to carry workers’ compensation insurance. If you’ve been hurt on the job, you have a right to file for benefits that will pay for your medical care, lost wages, and any permanent disability you suffer as a result of your injury.

Unlike the workers of the past who laid the groundwork for today’s laws, you don’t have to navigate the legal system alone. At the Law Office of Gerald Brody & Associates, we’re here to help you establish your case, defend your rights, and fight for the maximum benefits you’re entitled to. Give us a call at (619) 528-9800 today to schedule your free consultation.