Victorian Tort Liability for Workplace Injuries
Michael Ashley Stein   |   2008 U. Ill. L. Rev. 933
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The first decision of an injured worker suing his master for a work-place accident was reported in 1837, the year of Queen Victoria’s ascen-sion. The second Workman’s Compensation Act, a comprehensive social insurance scheme, was passed in 1900, a few months before her death. The Article provides an initial account of the development of employers’ liability to their servants for work-related injuries during the Victorian era. It demonstrates that English judges, and especially the Barons of the Exchequer, interpreted the law to resist employers’ liability. The means these judges used included creating the defence of common em-ployment, widely applying the doctrines of assumption of the risk and contributory negligence, quashing nearly every innovative attempt to cre-ate law favourable to labourers, and avoiding House of Lords precedent that supported a limited form of liability. The Article argues that the dominant influence of political economy as an intellectual schema pro-vides the most complete account of why Victorian judges acted in this manner. It also demonstrates that the three leading rationales for the parallel development of American tort law (judicial restraint, the invisi-ble hand hypothesis, and the subsidy theory) fall short as explanations. By setting forth the first comprehensive treatment of the evolution of English employer/employee liability, the Article provides a comparative perspective into the debate over the development of American tort law, and challenges its reinterpretation. The considerable weaknesses of the traditional historical explanations for the development of tort law when applied to the English context suggest that they may not be as strong for the American context. The Article demonstrates that historical inquiries are important for understanding novel applications of traditional legal doctrines to rapidly changing technological circumstances. Many of the same dilemmas faced by English judges in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution are being reprised for contemporary American jurists. Un-derstanding how a previous generation of judges approached similar ju-risprudential quandaries, as well as what motivated their decisions, lends insight to modern-day struggles with these dilemmas.

“And was Jerusalem builded here, among these dark Satanic Mills?”