How the U.S. Supreme Court Deemed the Workers' Compensation Grand Bargain 'Adequate' Without Defining Adequacy
30 Pages Posted: 31 Aug 2018
Date Written: August 24, 2018
During the second and third decades of the twentieth century, the U. S. Supreme Court issued a handful of opinions rejecting 14th Amendment constitutional challenges by employers to implementation of workers’ compensation statutes in the United States. Unknown to many, the statutes were largely the fruit of privately-sponsored investigations, principally by the Russell Sage Foundation and the National Association of Manufacturers, of European workers’ compensation systems during the first decade of the twentieth century. Some of those systems had been in existence since the 1870s and 1880s, and many employers preferred them to newly-emerging American employer liability statutes that retained tort liability while eliminating many or all affirmative defenses. The Minnesota Employees’ Compensation Commission and the National Civic Federation (NCF) catalyzed the national conversation on workers’ compensation from 1909-1911, and it was an NCF lawyer who was substantially responsible for a draft that became the first workers’ compensation statute upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court as constitutional. Contrary to the view held by some, the foundational Supreme Court opinions constitutionally authorizing the workers’ compensation “Grand Bargain” — statutory benefits for tort damages — set no workers’ compensation benefit floor. The article parses the opinions to emphasize the point, and then goes on to explore the context of what seems a strange omission. Ultimately, the article concludes that the Court “deferred,” sub silentio, to the private bodies of experts who had been investigating, reporting, and deliberating upon the European systems. The difficulty with the Court’s approach is that little has been left to posterity explaining what scale of employee benefits the Court might have deemed inadequate or unreasonable as an exchange for employee tort damages. The pregnant silence on federal constitutional boundaries continues to impact current discussions on limits to legislative reductions of workers’ compensation benefits. This absence of an explicit benefit floor should give pause to proponents of schemes seeking to export the workers’ compensation model to other legal regimes.
Keywords: Workers’ Compensation, Legal History, Grand Bargain, Quid Pro Quo, Tort
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