Workers’ compensation has had a long history throughout the world. The notion that work injuries deserved some sort of monetary reimbursement has been noted as far back as 2050 B.C. However, over the past 4,000 years, the intricacies of such laws have evolved and become more complex and difficult to understand. In the beginning, a focus was put more on protecting the employer rather than the employees. It took years of poor legislation before the modern workers’ comp system began to take hold and employee safety along with employer protection became the ultimate focus.

Early Workers’ Compensation Principles

Prior to 1875, the basic principles of the workers’ comp system was to protect businesses from employee injury lawsuits. To show that employers “cared” about their employees, workers’ compensation benefits were initiated and upheld for certain types of injuries. However, the covered injuries were few and far between—just enough to show concern and avoid lawsuits, but not enough to actually burden the employer. In fact, the system was so employee-restrictive that the only course of action most employees could take was through the legal system. Unfortunately, even then they had to contend with the “unholy trinity of defenses”—the three principles the workers’ comp system employed to protect employers from fault. These principles included:

  • The contributory negligence principle. The contributory negligence rule for workers’ compensation stated that if the employee was in any way responsible for his own injury—this included failing to report potential hazards to the employer—the employer could not be held accountable. Although part of this rule remains in the modern workers’ compensation system, the initial problem with it was that an employer could maintain that any accident was the employee’s fault. A guardrail was loose and the worker fell? He should have been wary of his surroundings and either fixed the guardrail himself or reported it to his employer.
  • The “fellow servant” principle. The “fellow servant” rule stated that if an employee’s injuries resulted from the action or negligence of a fellow employee, the employers could not be held responsible. Again, this gives the employer the freedom to blame his employees and to avoid paying benefits.
  • The “assumption of risk” principle. The doctrine of “assumption of risk” was probably the worst of the three principles, as it was exceptionally far-reaching. The principle stated that since potential hazards of a job are discussed before employment when an employee signs an employee contract, he assumes all risk that that job may create. As such, if he is injured on the job, he can’t sue the employer because his contract shows that he assumed the risk on his own accord. In industrial and construction environments, these contracts became known as the “worker’s right to die,” or “death contracts,” as many injuries were ultimately fatal.

These founding principles held strong for nearly 600 years, until the late 1800s. In hindsight, these principles seem unfairly biased against workers’ rights. Despite their obvious favoritism toward employers, their creation was the keystone to creating our modern no-fault workers’ compensation system.

For more information on your workers’ compensation rights or to talk to someone about your benefit options following a work-related accident, contact us today! Our thorough knowledge of workers’ compensation laws will help you successfully file your claim, appeal denials, and give you the guidance and resources you need to uphold your employee rights. Call us today and see how we can help put your mind at ease.

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