Workers’ Compensation Laws.

Workers’ compensation laws also evaded the ravages of Lochner. The Court “repeatedly has upheld the authority of the States to establish by legislation departures from the fellow-servant rule and other common-law rules affecting the employer’s liability for personal injuries to the employee.”120 Accordingly, a state statute that provided an exclusive system to govern the liabilities of employers for disabling injuries and death caused by accident in certain hazardous occupations,121 irrespective of the doctrines of negligence, contributory negligence, assumption of risk, and negligence of fellow-servants, was held not to violate due process.122 Likewise, an act that allowed an injured employee, though guilty of contributory negligence, an election of remedies between restricted recovery under a compensation law or full compensatory damages under the Employers’ Liability Act, did not deprive an employer of his property without due process of law.123 A variety of other statutory schemes have also been upheld.124

Even the imposition upon coal mine operators of the liability of compensating former employees who terminated work in the industry before passage of the law for black lung disabilities was sustained by the Court as a rational measure to spread the costs of the employees’ disabilities to those who have profited from the fruits of their labor.125 Legislation readjusting rights and burdens is not unlawful solely because it upsets otherwise settled expectations, but it must take account of the realities previously existing, i.e., that the danger may not have been known or appreciated, or that actions might have been taken in reliance upon the current state of the law. Consequently, legislation imposing liability on the basis of deterrence or of blameworthiness might not have passed muster.


New York Cent. R.R. v. White, 243 U.S. 188, 200 (1917). “These decisions have established the propositions that the rules of law concerning the employer’s responsibility for personal injury or death of an employee arising in the course of employment are not beyond alteration by legislation in the public interest; that no person has a vested right entitling him to have these any more than other rules of law remain unchanged for his benefit; and that, if we exclude arbitrary and unreasonable changes, liability may be imposed upon the employer without fault, and the rules respecting his responsibility to one employee for the negligence of another and respecting contributory negligence and assumption of risk are subject to legislative change.” Arizona Employers’ Liability Cases, 250 U.S. 400, 419–20 (1919). back
In determining what occupations may be brought under the designation of “hazardous,” the legislature may carry the idea to the “vanishing point.” Ward & Gow v. Krinsky, 259 U.S. 503, 520 (1922). back
Nor does it violate due process to deprive an employee or his dependents of the higher damages that, in some cases, might be rendered under these doctrines. New York Central R.R. v. White, 243 U.S. 188 (1917); Mountain Timber Co. v. Washington, 243 U.S. 219 (1917). back
Arizona Employers’ Liability Cases, 250 U.S. 400 (1919). back
Chicago, B. & Q. R.R. v. McGuire, 219 U.S. 549 (1911) (prohibiting contracts limiting liability for injuries and stipulating that acceptance of benefits under such contracts shall not constitute satisfaction of a claim); Alaska Packers Ass’n v. Industrial Accident Comm’n,, 294 U.S. 532 (1935) (forbidding contracts exempting employers hired-in-state from liability for injuries outside the state); Thornton v. Duffy, 254 U.S. 361 (1920) (required contribution to a state insurance fund by an employer even though employer had obtained protection from an insurance company under previous statutory scheme); Booth Fisheries v. Industrial Comm’n, 271 U.S. 208 (1926) (finding of fact of an industrial commission conclusive if supported by any evidence regardless of its preponderance, right to come under a workmen’s compensation statute is optional with employer); Staten Island Ry. v. Phoenix Co., 281 U.S. 98 (1930) (wrongdoer is obliged to indemnify employer or the insurance carrier of the employer in the amount which the latter were required to contribute into special compensation funds); Sheehan Co. v. Shuler, 265 U.S. 371 (1924) (where an injured employee dies without dependents, employer or carrier required to make payments into special funds to be used for vocational rehabilitation or disability compensation of injured workers of other establishments); New York State Rys. v. Shuler, 265 U.S. 379 (1924) (same holding as above case); New York Cent. R.R. v. Bianc, 250 U.S. 596 (1919) (attorneys are not deprived of property or their liberty of contract by restriction imposed by the state on the fees they may charge in cases arising under the workmen’s compensation law); Yeiser v. Dysart, 267 U.S. 540 (1925) (compensation need not be based exclusively on loss of earning power, and award authorized for injuries resulting in disfigurement of the face or head, independent of compensation for inability to work). back
Usery v. Turner Elkhorn Mining Co., 428 U.S. 1, 14–20 (1976). But see id. at 38 (Justice Powell concurring). back