Workers’ compensation came about in the United States in the early 1900s, a product of the industrial age and a result of increasing numbers of job-related injuries and deaths. Until the development of workers’ compensation laws, workers had little or no recourse against their employers for injuries sustained on the job. When job injuries led to the inability to work and the inability to pay for medical care, these workers frequently were left destitute.
The system of workers’ compensation grew from the law of vicarious liability, an English law developed in approximately 1700. The law of vicarious liability made a master or employer liable for the negligent acts of a servant or employee. An 1837 English case, Priestly v. Fowler, modified the law of vicarious liability with the fellow servant exception, which relieved a master or employer of liability for a negligent employee who caused injury to a co-employee. Following the example set in Priestly, U. S. courts continued to modify the law of vicarious liability and provide the employer with greater protections against liability resulting from negligence. The doctrine of assumption of the risk presumed, often incorrectly, that employees could refuse dangerous job assignments, thereby relieving the employer of liability when those job assignments caused injury or death. Employers could also rely on the defense of contributory negligence, which completely absolved them of liability when the employer’s negligence along with the employee’s negligence caused his injury.
Workers were left with inadequate remedies against their employers for injuries resulting from work. At the same time, the industrial age was spawning an increase in work injuries. States began to recognize a problem by the end of the nineteenth century and looked to the compensation systems of other countries for guidance. In 1884, Germany, with its socialist traditions, had developed a compensation system whereby employers and employees shared the cost of subsidizing workers disabled by injury, illness, or old age. Next was England, which in1897 developed a similar system called the British Compensation Act. Finally, in 1910, representatives from various states met in Chicago and drafted the Uniform Workmen’s Compensation Law. This uniform law was not widely adopted, but states used it as a model to draft their own workers’ compensation statutes. Most states had such laws in place by 1920, and when Hawaii passed its statute in 1963, all fifty states had workers’ compensation laws.