Today it seems so simple: If you are hurt at work, your employer pays for insurance to cover all your injuries and lost wages. Just like many things in our country, it didn’t used to be like that.
We used to have a Common Law system. It was really geared to protect the business owners. At the time, labor was considered a commodity and most employees were deemed easily replaceable. If an employee was hurt at work, it was their own bad luck and the owner would just find another person willing to do the job. The hurt employee was on their own for the medical bills and lost wages.
Common Law offered some options to the injured employee. They could sue the employer, but the burden of proving employer negligence fell on the employee. An employer had five (5) obligations to provide for their workers:
- Reasonably safe place to work.
- Reasonably safe tools.
- Competent (safe and sober) fellow employees.
- Safety rules established and enforced.
- Warning to workers of any known/inherent dangers.
An employee was tasked with proving that an employer didn’t provide one of these obligations, and if they did, they would win their case against the employer.
Common Law defense for an employer had three (3) main aspects:
- Assumption of Risk - An employer was not responsible if an employee took the job knowing the risk associated with the job. For example, if you take a job lifting heavy objects, you should expect back injuries.
- Contributory Negligence - An employer was not responsible if the employee contributed to the injury at all. If an employee was in any way negligent, there was no recovery available at all for the employee. For example, an employee doesn’t use the proper safety equipment or use it the way it was intended.
- Fellow-Servant Rule - An employer was not responsible for the negligence of a fellow employee even if it was a manager. For example, an employee drops a hammer while working on a building and it falls and hits another employee on the head, severely injuring the employee.
Using the courts to settle disputes between workers and employers was slow and tedious. Many times an employee could be bankrupt and homeless before ever seeing a settlement.
In 1915 the Workers Compensation Act in Colorado was passed. It transformed the system to a no-fault system. This meant that an employee could receive the services that they needed and the employer didn’t have to admit fault and pay lawyers to defend themselves. It streamlined the system and allowed companies to manage their costs better.