The Historical Precedents to Workers’ Compensation, by Attorney Ann Sheeley
March 21, 2011
Workers’ compensation forms a cornerstone of our modern legal and insurance system. It allows workers to fulfill their duties without fear that an accident or other injury will take away their livelihoods unexpectedly. Although the social safety net provided by workers’ compensation seems like a recent invention, it actually has roots stretching back into antiquity.
The first known records of workers’ compensation law date back over 4000 years, to ancient Sumeria (modern-day Iraq). The Sumerian city-state of Ur enacted laws protecting workers from bodily injury, with specific measures laid out for specific losses. Similar systems appeared in ancient Greece, as well as in Rome and China. The Arabs, another group of early adopters, even devised a system of compensation based on the length or surface area of the body part lost.
This system of compensation disappeared in Europe in the Middle Ages, and any compensation for injury was left to the discretion of feudal lords. Workers’ compensation did not resurface again in the Western world until the Industrial Revolution, supported by a framework built up in English common law. Under this system, three major types of defenses were allowed in most European countries.
1. Assumption of risk: This doctrine held that workers, by engaging in a particular job, agreed by default to the risks inherent with the occupation. If the worker was injured for a reason other than what would be reasonably expected in the profession, then he had the right to sue.
2. Contributory negligence: This law held that, should the injury be even partially the fault of the employee, the employer was immune from prosecution.
3. The fellow servant law: Any injury arising from the actions of a fellow employee were non-compensable.
To complicate this situation, most countries required employees to claim compensation through civil courts, an expensive proposition that fell entirely out the reach of most workers. To resolve this issue, private societies arose in some countries to help defer legal costs for injured workers.
Over the course of the 19th century, court victories for workers became more common, leading employers to become wearier of the high costs of civil litigation and more supportive of the establishment of a workers’ compensation system. The first modern workers’ compensation law appeared in Prussia, in 1871. In America, similar laws started to appear in the first decade of the 20th century.
Ann Sheeley, a successful Rhode Island-based attorney, has practiced civil and criminal law for over 22 years. She specializes in workers’ compensation and other types of injury law.