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Thursday, February 17, 2011

A National Celebration of the Workers' Compensation Centennial

Guest Blog by Alan S. Pierce

The year 1911 saw the enactment of this country’s first state-based Workers’ Compensation laws. The effects of the Industrial Revolution began some decades earlier and made it necessary to change the way the costs associated with workplace injuries and deaths were compensated.

Wisconsin claims credit for the first constitutional statute (earlier attempts failed constitutional muster) with Massachusetts and nine more states not far behind.  Thirty-six other states followed by the end of the decade.

So it’s no surprise that 2011 will see various commemorations of this social, economic, and legal milestone.  

Here in Massachusetts, generally acknowledged as the nation’s second state to pass a Workers’ compensation statute (signed into law by Governor Eugene H. Foss, July 28, 1911) plans have been underway to mark this auspicious occasion.

On April 7, 2011, Massachusetts will be holding a centennial commemoration that has attracted interest across the country.

The American Bar Associations's (ABA) Section on Tort, Trial and Insurance Section (TIPS) and the Workers’ Compensation and the Section of Labor and Employment Law (LEL) has joined in the planning of this hallmark event, and we, along with the Labor and Employment Law Committee, will be holding The 2001 Midwinter Seminar & Conference in Boston April 7-9, 2011 to coincide with the Massachusetts event.

Before detailing our plans in Massachusetts, it is worthwhile to briefly examine the historical origins of a concept of a no-fault-based system of compensating for job-related injuries and deaths.  Who then can lay claim to the first model of a modern Workers’ Compensation system?  

Early History of Workers' Compensation

According to Gregory Guyton in A Brief History of Workers’ Compensation, Iowa Orthopedic Journal, 1999, in approximately 2050 B.C., in ancient Sumeria (now Iraq), the law of Ur contained in Nippur Tablet No, 3191 provided for compensation for injury to a worker’s specific body parts.  Under ancient Arab law, the loss of a thumb was worth one-half the value of a finger. The loss of a penis however was compensated by the amount of the length lost. The manner of estimating that however, is a fact lost to history. Similar systems existed and are contained in Hammurabi’s Code in 1750 B.C. as well as in ancient Greek, Roman, and Chinese law. The common denominator in most if not all of these early schemes was the compensation for “schedules” for specific injuries which determined specific monetary rewards. This concept of an “impairment” (the loss of function of a body part) as distinct from a “disability” (the loss of ability to perform specific tasks remains with us today
Jumping ahead a couple of thousand years.

Stephen Talty in Empire of Blue Water: Captain Morgan’s Great Pirate Army, Crown Publishing, (2007) describes the legendary English privateer Capt. Henry Morgan (of the rum company fame) who in the mid-1600s had a ship’s constitution that provided for the “recompense and rewards each one ought to have that is either wounded or maimed in his body, suffering the loss of any limb, by that voyage.” The loss of a right arm was worth 600 pieces of eight; the left arm:500; right leg:500, left leg: 400, and so forth.

Today’s workers’ compensation laws owe their origin to Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck who in a political move to mitigate social unrest, created the Employer’s Liability Law of 1871.  In 1884 he established Workers’ Accident Insurance.  This program not only provided monetary benefits but medical and rehabilitation benefits as well.  The centerpiece of von Bismarck’s plan was the shielding of employers from civil lawsuits; thus the exclusive remedy doctrine was born.

Centennial Commemoration in Massachusetts

Plans to commemorate this centennial originated with the Massachusetts Academy of Trial Attorneys, which for the past decade hosted an annual Workers’ Compensation Bench/Bar Dinner.

On April 7, 2011, the Massachusetts Academy of Trial Attorneys, the Massachusetts Bar Association, and the Department of Industrial Accidents will host a centennial commemoration of workers’ compensation, not only in Massachusetts but the country as well.

The focus will be on the recognition of 100 years of workers’ compensation remembering how this unique area of law originated and developed with a look toward the future and examining forces at work that may change how workplace injuries are compensated.  A planning committee comprised of representatives of the claimant and insurer bar, Department of Industrial Accident representatives, and other stakeholders in the system have been meeting periodically for almost three years.  

Our plans have three major components:  a symposium featuring four of the nation’s leading scholars of workers’ compensation as an economic, labor relations, and legal concept; a book covering the history of the Massachusetts Industrial Accident Board, and dinner bringing everyone together at the Rose Kennedy Ballroom at the Intercontinental Hotel in Boston.  The other bar groups coming to Boston to join us will be holding their own programming, including three mornings of informative continuing legal education program as part of the ABA TIPS/Workers’ Compensation Committee and Labor and Employment Law Committee’s annual midwinter meeting.  

The ABA’s College of Workers’ Compensation Lawyers will also hold its annual dinner inducting the 2011 Class of Fellows on Saturday, April 9, 2011. 


The symposium to be held during the afternoon of April 7, 2011, will be chaired by Prof. Emeritus John Burton, perhaps the leading authority on workers’ compensation, both nationally and internationally.  Burton, who has taught economics and labor relations at Rutgers and Cornell Universities, was President Nixon’s appointed Chair of the 1972 National Commission on Workers’ Compensation which resulted in recommendations responsible for the extended period of major workers’ compensation reforms that closed out the last quarter of the 20th century.  

Prof. Burton has invited Emily Spieler, Dean of Northeastern University Law School, Dr. Richard Victor, Executive Director of the Workers’ Compensation Research Institute, and Prof. Les Boden of Boston University to join him. Among the subjects to be explored are a discussion of federal and state responsibility for workers’ compensation; the extent of coverage of injuries and disease; the impact of changes in healthcare and what “universal” healthcare may mean for workers’ compensation systems; adequacy and equity of benefits among other topics.

 Book on The Massachusetts Industrial Board

Attorney and TIPS member, Joseph Agnelli Jr. of the Keches Law Group, has authored The “Board” A History of the First Century of the Massachusetts Industrial Accident Board and the Workers’ Compensation Act.

Agnelli’s book contains a comprehensive history of workers’ compensation in Massachusetts focusing on how our Industrial Accident Board was originally organized.  The book profiles many of the fascinating commissioners, judges, and attorneys who help shape the practice of workers’ compensation law at the Department of Industrial Accidents.

The book also features a copy of the Workers’ Compensation Statute signed into law by Governor Eugene H. Foss on July 28, 1911; a copy of the first insurance policy (policy no. 1) issued to the Everett Mills by the Massachusetts Employee’s Insurance Association (M.E.I.A.), the entity that was to become Liberty Mutual Insurance Company.

According to Agnelli’s forward:  “When pondering a suitable way to commemorate such a momentous event, it became clear that something needed to be written about the countless numbers of individuals who have played a role in its long history, to the legislators who were instrumental in its passage of 1911, the members of the first Industrial Accident Board in 1912, the men and women who have served as either Commissioners or Administrative Judges on the Board, those who pioneered the early practice before the Board, and to past and current personalities, this book is a tribute to their efforts in perpetuating the spirit of the Act.”

Symposium Dinner

The Symposium Dinner on Thursday evening, April 7, 2011, will be held in a remarkable venue, a ballroom that can accommodate up to 700 people.  Early reservations are a must.  To purchase dinner tickets or for further information, contact OR contact Alan Pierce at 978-745-0914.
Alan S. Pierce practices in Salem Massachusetts. He has authored and edited several publications including Massachusetts Workers' Compensation Law, Workers' Compensation and the Law, and Workers' Compensation: Issues and Answers. Alan currently serves as chair-elect of the American Bar Association workers' compensation section and will be the national chairperson in 2010. He is a charter Fellow in the College of Workers' Compensation Lawyers.

Other Resources
Registration Information: 2011 Midwinter Meeting
Program Agenda: 2011 Midwinter Meeting

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