Workers’ compensation systems became more common in European countries and the U.S. during the Industrial Revolution, when businesses began using fossil fuels for energy to power large factories. In these dangerous conditions, many workers faced injury and illness in industrialized workplaces before premises were subject to comprehensive safety regulations.
Hazardous conditions also developed for miners who worked to keep factories fueled such as by coal.
Under English and American law at the time, it was difficult for injured employees to prove in court – if they had the means to file lawsuits – that it was their employers’ negligence that had caused harm.
Employers were usually successful in using one or more of their “unholy trinity of defenses” in court to show they were not legally liable, often defeating workers’ lawsuits. The three defenses were:
- Contributory negligence: Injured employees contributed to their own injuries through their own negligence.
- Fellow servant rule: Coworkers’ actions contributed to the plaintiffs’ injuries.
- Assumption of risk: Employees assumed the risk of injury in dangerous workplaces when they agreed to work there.
Employers were not happy about the difficulty of planning for the loss of time and money needed to defend the lawsuits that did land in court.
The grand bargain
The broad idea behind workers’ compensation is that employers agree to pay for work-related employee injuries and diseases – regardless of who was at fault – in exchange for employees accepting workers’ compensation benefits and giving up the right to sue their employers. This makes dealing with work injury more certain and foreseeable for both sides.
Or, as the Illinois Supreme Court said in Kelsay v. Motorola, Inc., the Act “substitutes an entirely new system of rights, remedies and procedure for all previously existing common law [(court-created)] rights and liabilities between employers and employees subject to the Act for accidental injuries or death of employees arising out of and in the course of employment … the employee gave us his common law rights to sue his employer in tort, but recovery for injuries arising out of and in the course of his employment became automatic without regard to any fault on his part. The employer, who gave up the right to plead numerous common law defenses, was compelled to pay, but his liability became fixed under a strict and comprehensive statutory scheme …”
Illinois workers’ compensation origins
In our state and across the country, people were horrified in 1909 when 259 men and boys died in a coal mine fire in Cherry, Illinois, a small town not far from Rockford. In 1911, Illinois was the second state (after Wisconsin) to pass a constitutional workers’ compensation law that took effect in 1912, according to the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission (IWCC).
The arrangement between Illinois employers and employees “promote[s] the fundamental purpose of the Act, which was to afford protection to employees by providing them with prompt and equitable compensation for their injuries,” continues Kelsay. Indeed, the Illinois Supreme Court later explained in Beelman Trucking v. Illinois Workers’ Compensation Com’n that the Act is “remedial … intended to provide financial protection for injured workers and it is to be liberally construed to accomplish that objective.”
(The 1978 Illinois Supreme Court case of Kelsay v. Motorola, Inc. is available on Westlaw at 74 Ill.2d 172 and the 2009 Beelman Trucking case is at 233 Ill.2d 364.)