The History of Workers’ Compensation in Pennsylvania and Beyond

The Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act:
Its Theory… and a Brief Note on Its Origin

Here is a thumbnail discussion of the theory of workers’ compensation law and how the Pennsylvania Act was enacted and has evolved over the decades.  This history, particularly that of the years immediately before and after enactment, is detailed further in other articles you will find in the sidebar on this page.

Workers’ compensation in Pennsylvania is now approaching its 100th anniversary.  Under this law, the injured employee is entitled to wage loss and medical benefits on a no-fault basis when he or she sustains an injury arising in the course of employment.  The injured employee must be satisfied with these benefits, as the law extinguishes his or her common law right to sue the employer, under tort law theories, in civil court.  This formula, so firmly engrained in our injury law, is well known among lawyers and judges, and among much of the general public as well.

What, however, was the genesis of this law?

Pennsylvania, like most states, began serious consideration of enacting workers’ compensation legislation in the early years of the twentieth century.  A number of factors were at work.  They included:

  1. Societal pressure for legislation that would address the epidemic of uncompensated work injuries and deaths.
  2. The 1911 enactment of such laws in other states, including Massachusetts, New York, and Wisconsin.
  3. The positive experience of similar programs in England and Germany.
  4. Employer desire to be free of unpredictable tort liability in civil actions.

All of these factors coalesced to motivate the Pennsylvania legislature to consider a workers’ compensation act.  Accordingly, in 1911 it established a commission to make recommendations with regard to the advisability and form of such legislation.

In 1912, that entity, the Industrial Accidents Commission, published proposed legislation to provide compensation for injured workers. The law was modeled on the British Workmen’s Compensation Law of 1906. That statute, which imposed liability for the first time on a no-fault basis on all employers for work accidents, was of great influence on the Pennsylvania commission.The law’s approach ultimately formed the basis for the original 1915 Pennsylvania Act.  It won out over the German concept of compensation insurance, a system which was more comprehensive – a part of an overall insurance scheme which also provided coverages for non-work related illnesses and injuries. Proposed legislation based upon the German model had, notably, been submitted to the Commission by the Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association in 1912.

No overwhelming opposition existed to the law, although significant debate existed with regard what coverages and benefits were to be included.  The most debated issue was whether occupational diseases were to be included. The view that diseases were to be excluded prevailed until the late 1930’s.

To ensure that the law was constitutional, proponents of the law succeeded in having the state constitution amended to allow for a compulsory law.  In this regard, Article III, § 21 provides, among other things,

The general assembly may enact laws requiring the payments by employers, or employers and employees jointly, of reasonable compensation for injuries to employees arising in the course of their employment, and for occupational diseases, whether or not such injuries or diseases result in death, and regardless of fault of employer or employee, and fixing the basis of ascertainment of such compensation and the maximum and minimum limits thereof, and providing special or general remedies for the collection thereof[.]

This amendment was adopted November 2, 1915.  It  was renumbered as Art. III, § 18 in the course of the major overhaul of the state constitution in 1968.

The original Pennsylvania law was passed on June 2, 1915, to be effective on January 1, 1916.  The law in its initial form, though amended many times over, is still familiar in many aspects when compared to the Act in its present form.  The Act was initially divided into articles that correspond generally to those of the current law. Many of the original statutory sections governing specific issues are precisely the same in the present day as they were originally.

Still, the law has evolved over the years.  The principal amendments were in 1919, 1937, 1939, 1956, 1972, 1974, 1993, 1995, 1996 and 2007.  And, of course, the law is defined as well by how the appellate courts interpret the law in their precedents.  In our state, the court which takes appeals from the adjudications of the workers’ compensation authorities is the Commonwealth Court.  Appeals from that court may be taken to the state Supreme Court, though that court accepts only those workers’ compensation cases that it perceives as especially important.  To understand the law in the present day lawyers, judges, workers, and employers must study not only the statute but its interpretation by these courts.