Employers' Liability Laws

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EMPLOYERS' LIABILITY LAWS. As occupational injuries increased in the nineteenth century, state courts formulated and frequently invoked three major doctrines in dealing with damage suits for work injuries: the fellow servant doctrine that the injured worker could not hold the employerliable for his coworker's negligence; the risk assumption doctrine that workers should be presumed to have assumed the intrinsic hazards of their employment; and the contributory negligence doctrine that workers who had contributed to their own injury in any degree could not recover damages. Such doctrines were intended to promote entrepreneurship and protect capital investment. But in the late nineteenth century many state legislatures challenged that common-law framework as "unjust" and "inhumane" and enacted employers' liability laws that held the employer liable for the injury suffered by employees in the course of their employment. Still, as they stood in the early years of the twentieth century, those laws had critical shortcomings. Litigation of these laws proved costly and uncertain for resourceless workers, and damages, if any, were typically meager.

The continuing injustices under the employers' liability laws became the major labor issue during the Progressive Era. While strengthening and extending employers' liability laws, such as the Federal Employers' Liability Act of 1908, broad reform coalitions—including labor unions, social and charity workers, academics, muck-raking journalists, women's and consumers' clubs, social gospel ministers, and progressive politicians and labor officials—pushed workers' compensation laws through state legislatures (ten states in 1911, all the states but six by 1920) and Congress (in 1908 and 1916). These laws adjudicated work injury cases regardless of fault, with contracting out prohibited, and in most cases without litigation. Since their constitutionality was affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1917, workers' compensation laws have become the main damage recovery system for the vast majority of occupational injuries and diseases in America's workplaces.


Park, David W. "'Compensation or Confiscation?': Workmen's Compensation and Legal Progressivism, 1898–1917." Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2000.

Weiss, Harry. "Employers' Liability and Workmen's Compensation." In History of Labor in the United States, 1896–1932. John R. Commons, et al. Volume 3. New York: A. M. Kelley, 1966.


See alsoWorkers' Compensation .

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