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How the Tables Turned – An Overview of How Employers, Once Wholly Insulated from Liability, Can Now Be Held Responsible for Workers’ Injuries.


Before the advent of our modern Workers’ Compensation system, workers had to sue their employers for injuries incurred on the job, and courts rarely granted workers any reimbursement. The laws favored the employer, allowing them to utilize a range of defenses to avoid liability:

  1. Contributory Negligence: “The injury wasn't our fault; it was due to your own negligence! The liability is on you, the worker.”
  2. The “Fellow Servant” Doctrine: “The injury wasn't our fault; it was the fault of your fellow employee – sue them!”
  3. The legal principle known as Assumption of Risk: “The injury might have been our fault, but the liability is still on you. You knew the risks when you signed up for this job.”

In all these scenarios, employers were able to strategically circumvent any liability, effectively convincing the courts that the workplace injury was the fault of the worker, a fellow worker, or an inherent risk of the job that employees agreed to when they were hired.

The institution of Workers’ Compensation laws began in Prussia with the introduction of Sickness and Accident Laws in the late 1800s. These provided some protections for particularly dangerous occupations, such as coal mining and railroad working, and established a system where injured workers could receive reimbursement for on-the-job injuries, albeit with minimal protections by today's standards. This system then spread throughout Europe, starting with the English enactment of the 1897 Workers’ Compensation Act.

In 1908, the U.S. introduced the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA). Although not what lawyers would categorize as a Workers’ Compensation law, it was a significant step toward assigning some liability to employers. The FELA specifically addressed the perilous working conditions of railroad workers. With an extremely high accident rate and little to no effort by employers to ensure workers' safety, it became apparent that courts needed to enforce laws that incentivized employers to implement basic safety measures. This law provided a means for workers to be compensated, but only if they could demonstrate that their injuries were due to employer negligence – a key distinction that separates such laws from Workers’ Compensation laws, which do not require assigning fault to provide compensation to the worker.

From around 1905, courts increasingly ruled in favor of workers in lawsuits related to workplace injuries. Although the majority of workplace injuries were still not compensated, the dynamic had shifted, and employers were becoming anxious. This shift helped garner support among employers for a change in the law, paving the way for the establishment of a true Workers’ Compensation system.

In 1911, the first Workers’ Compensation law was enacted by Wisconsin – a state not typically known for breaking convention and setting bold standards. Yet, it did set bold standards, as Wisconsin’s model was quickly adopted by nine other states that year, with all states eventually following suit by 1948.

Wisconsin’s 1911 Workmen’s Compensation Act established a no-fault system, which meant workers no longer had to prove employer negligence to obtain compensation. Additionally, the law required employers to promptly provide compensation for workplace injuries. This law, however, had its limitations – the amounts workers could recover were capped, thus protecting employers. Some types of awards, like the “loss of enjoyment” award that a jury might grant, were no longer available. Despite these limitations, the 1911 law allowed for medical treatment, wage replacement, and permanent disability compensation – fundamental aspects of Workers’ Compensation law that remain to this day. This law marked a pivotal shift, altering the recourse for employees who suffered workplace injuries. Instead of initiating a lawsuit and proving employer negligence, employees had a more dependable avenue for obtaining compensation.

Today, New Jersey mandates that all employers maintain Workers’ Compensation insurance or federal protection to cover their employees' workplace injuries. Moreover, NJ workers have a reliable route to reimbursement if they sustain an injury at work.

If you've suffered a workplace injury, you may be entitled to a range of compensatory benefits under New Jersey’s Workers’ Compensation system, including medical treatment, wage replacement, and permanent disability compensation. Although the process of filing a claim is straightforward, it can sometimes be daunting. That's where working with a knowledgeable lawyer can be beneficial – instead of navigating the complexities of what can seem like a convoluted process on your own, let the attorneys at Scura relieve you of this burden. Call for a free consultation to learn about what you can recover under New Jersey’s Workers’ Compensation system.


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