From Petitions for Gratuities to Claims for Damages: Personal Injuries and Railroads During the Industrialization of the United States
57 American Jrnl of Legal History 261-315 (2017)
120 Pages Posted: 17 May 2018
Date Written: 2017
This article presents the findings of an empirical study of the ways in which railroads and the individuals they killed or injured handled claims for compensation from the 1840's to the beginning of the twentieth century. These findings are based on original research in the papers and official records of a variety of railroads.
The unpublished papers relating to personal injuries of several railroads suggest that individuals in antebellum America tended to avoid recourse to formal legal institutions to resolve problems relating to personal injuries. They preferred to solve these problems privately and informally according to principles of natural justice and fairness. These sources reveal that railroads compensated individuals for injuries even when the railroads had no legal duty to do so. They commonly reimbursed workers and their families for the economic costs of injuries sustained on the job, paying medical and burial expenses and making donations to needy family survivors even thought rules of law, such as the fellow servant doctrine, assumption of the risk, and contributory negligence, precluded legal liability. Railroad officials also compensated pedestrians and passengers who were injured by trains even when they had no legal liability for the injuries. This article will suggest some explanations for this remarkable and counter-intuitive behavior.
However, as the nineteenth century approached the twentieth, Americans increasingly thought about personal injuries in terms of legal rights and duties and in terms of legal rules and legal concepts such as causation, fault and settlement. Parties also more frequently used lawyers who developed and employed legal strategies to resolve demands for compensation. This article will offer some suggestions as to why this transformation occurred.
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