Workers' Compensation Legislation

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Workers' compensation legislation provides workers compensation for losses resulting from injury, disablement, or death when the losses result from work-related accidents, casualties, or disease. The legislation replaces tort liability with a schedule of benefits based upon the loss or impairment of the wage-earning capacity of the worker. All fifty states in the Union have workers' compensation statutes.

Under the common law, employers often were able to defeat employees' tort actions by invoking the doctrines of contributory negligence, negligence of fellow servants, or assumption of risk. Frequently the employer did not even need these defenses, for the employee first had to prove the employer's negligence in order to recover. Accordingly, many victims of work-related injuries went uncompensated.

In order to extend the protection afforded workers and to contain costly and time-consuming litigation of industrial accidents, states enacted workers' compensation legislation with no requirement of negligence or fault as a prerequisite to liability. Employers were simultaneously protected against what were perceived to be excessively large judgments through a limited and determinant payout. The statutes essentially substitute a system of insurance for liability based on fault.

In Ives v. South Buffalo Railway Company (1911) New York's highest court struck down the state's first compulsory compensation requirements as unconstitutional, on the ground that they violated the state and federal due process clauses. However, the Supreme Court held in new york central railroad company v. white (1917) that a compulsory compensation system does not violate the United States Constitution, at least for "hazardous employment." In the case of the New York statute, New York promptly amended its constitution to authorize compulsory plans.

The general rule in this area of law is that if an injury is fully or partly covered by the statute, the statutory remedy is exclusive. Many jurisdictions do not allow compensation for injuries caused by a worker's willful misconduct or unreasonable failure to observe safety rules or use safety devices.

William B. Gould


Malone, Wex S. et al. 1980 Cases and Materials on Workers' Compensation and Employment Rights, 2nd ed. St. Paul, Minn: West Publishing Co.