Okay so I need to look up and find some quotes and supporting evidence and examples etc etc, but for now (it’s just a blog anyway) trust me when I say there’s a story that goes like this:

workmen’s compensation was good for workers because under the old system workers lost a lot in their suits over workplace injuries. Workmen’s comp regularized the payment for injuries. (Note: I say “workmen’s comp” and not “workers’ comp” because the former is what it was called in the time I’m looking at and because the gender dynamics here are important – not all workers were workmen, if you know what I mean.)

Now, this is by no means an exhaustive or representative sample, but I think the following is suggestive (more numbers!; I really must learn to do this stuff for real instead of the muddle-headed way I do it now).

I did a quick (well, not really quick, more like ‘preliminary and a bit rushed, to which I will have to return with more care, patience, and slowness’) survey of Minnesota Supreme Court cases pre-implementation of workmen’s comp in Minnesota. The workmen’s comp law was passed in 1913 but cases for accidents prior to that were being heard as late as 1915). I found info for 138 cases that I’m sure are employee accident suits (it was by a search for the legal rule of assumption of risk, at present I have no idea how to really go about getting anything like the total number of employee injury cases heard by the state supreme court for any particular time period, let alone the number of cases heard by district courts or the total US cases, another reason I got to learn this number stuff better).

I looked only at cases after January 1, 1900. The counts and calculations are provisional and need to be rechecked. I didn’t count the cases that said they were not workplace cases or cases that were railway cases, the latter because the federal laws on railroad liability changed in this era. That’s another thing I need to learn about and look into, the laws on that and the outcomes of those sorts of cases. Likewise with more attention to references to age and to gender and to disfigurement in the decisions and the trial records.

Anyhow –

non-railroad employees who sued over workplace injuries in Minnesota from about 1900-1915 or 1916 and ended up in the state Supreme Court (court of final appeal for these sorts of cases in this period)

138 cases.

106 Lower court decision for employee
= about 76.8% of all these cases (out of the 138); this means the bulk of appeals are by defendant employers

96 Higher court decision for employee
= about 69.6% of all these cases

87 won at both levels
= about 63.0% of all these cases

The above also means:

– 87 employees’ cases won at both levels means that about 82.1% of employees’ cases that won in the lower court won in the higher court, and employers’ appeals heard in the supreme court only won about 18% of the time.

– 19 employees’ cases won at the lower that lost at the higher = about 13.8% of all these cases and about 17.9% of the state supreme court cases that won in lower courts. This is a fraction of cases, but one big enough that workers’ who knew this (if any did) would have reason to be nervous about a win in the lower court. This number should not be taken too seriously, though, because it’s not the percent of all lower court victories, it’s the percent of all state supreme court cases where the employee had initially won in the lower court. Not knowing how many lower court cases, I can’t say what percent got appealed and therefore can’t say what percent got reversed on appeal. I can say with confidence it was less that 17.9% since surely not *every* lower court workplace injury case was appealed and ended up in the state supreme court.

– 9 employees’ cases won at the higher court that lost at the lower = 6.5% of all these cases and about 28.1% of the supreme court cases that lost in lower courts. This means workers had some chance but not a great chance of winning at the higher court if they lost at the lower. An analogous qualifier to the one on the last point applies here.


The losses for injured workers are high (certainly for an injured worker any loss is a big deal and any chance of a loss could arguably be said to be unacceptable) but the majority of employees’ cases are not losses when they get to the supreme court. The employers lose their appeals the majority of the time.

Another qualifier: there’s no reason to assume highest level cases are typical or representative.

Still, suggestive.


Notes to self: I need to
– figure out how to get info on lower court cases
– start gathering info on other US states
– remind myself of the dates and stuff of when different comp laws were passed
– get more familiar with the employers’ liability vs worker’s comp debates
– look into failed legislative proposals re: the last point
– for each case list various factors (damage sought, award, plaintiff and injured party details like age and gender and injury type)
– gather the decisions and skim them, mark the ones that need further attention like parents suing on behalf not only of their injured children but on their own befalf for loss of support
– brush up on the larger social, economic, legal situation(s) in these times
– get clearer on what the relevant bodies of secondary literature are, read them, write on them (notes and responses)
– track court decisions over time as well, any trends?