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Traditional Tort Law Compared with Workers’ Compensation

History of Workers’ Remedies

In the early period of the Industrial Revolution, injured workers were often prevented from recovering damages for injuries suffered on the job due to two rules originating in Great Britain’s common law system.  These rules are known as contributory negligence and the fellow servant doctrine.  Both of these rules established conditions that made it nearly impossible for many injured workers to recover damages unless the employer was entirely at fault for the injuries.

Contributory Negligence

Contributory negligence dictated that if the injured party in any accident bore any responsibility (even partial), they were completely unable to collect damages from the other party.  In practice, this meant that most workplace accidents went completely uncompensated, even when employers were mostly to blame due to negligence.

Fellow Servant Doctrine

The Fellow Servant Doctrine was another British common law principle that prohibited employees from collecting damages from their employer if they were injured by another employee.  The theory was that the employer could not be held responsible for the negligence of an employee.

Judicial Course Correction

Over time and after much public criticism, courts eventually abandoned the principle of contributory negligence and the fellow servant doctrine, replacing them with the principles of comparative fault and respondeat superior.

Comparative Fault

Comparative fault is a modification of the contributory negligence doctrine, which allows injured parties to recover in proportion to their share in the fault.  That is, if a jury determines that the injured party was 30 percent at fault, they can still receive 70 percent of their damages from other responsible parties.  This began to replace the harsher rule of contributory negligence, leaving workers with at least a partial remedy.  While the process of determining fault in terms of percentage may be an inexact science, it is widely agreed that this system is more equitable than one in which a person only minimally responsible for their injury is totally precluded from recovering damages.

Respondeat Superior

From the Latin meaning “Let the master answer,” the doctrine of respondeat superior has ancient roots in civil tort law.  It was frequently applied to situations in which an employee’s negligence resulted in injury to an innocent bystander, but was not applied to work-related injuries due to the Fellow Servant Rule.

Legislative Course Correction

Legislative change preceded judicial adaptation in the United States.  Georgia led the way when its legislature passed the first Employer Liability Act in 1855.  This was followed by several other states.  Congress followed suit with the Federal Employers’ Liability Act and similar legislation to cover railroad workers, sailors, and federal employees.  The first Employers’ Liability Acts simply gave employees the right to sue their employers for injuries.  They did not guarantee a recovery.  Workers’ compensation as we know it today is a product of the 20th century.  The workers’ compensation statutes in most American jurisdictions provide injured workers with what amounts to an almost guaranteed recovery.

Workers’ compensation laws require employers to carry workers’ compensation insurance.  These policies insure against most workplace injuries without regard to fault.  The law represents a compromise between labor and management interests.  It furthers management interests by limiting liability to a fixed schedule and precluding further liability on the part of the employer.  It furthers labor interests by providing a speedy, guaranteed payment without costly litigation over who is at fault.   

Contact a Georgia Workers’ Compensation Attorney

If you have been injured on the job, you have a right to be compensated in some way for your injuries.  What that compensation should be depends on the facts and circumstances of your case.  Often, half the battle is knowing which remedies are available to you and which you should pursue.  You may have a tort claim.  You may have a workers’ compensation claim.  You may have both.  Contact the Georgia attorneys at Bader Scott Injury Lawyers today for a free consultation.  We can discuss the facts of your case with you and help you determine which remedies to pursue.

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Seth Bader
(678) 562-5595