Monday, March 26, 2018

The Road to Workers’ Compensation: How Vicarious Liability Killed the Fellow Servant Rule in 1893

In the 1880s, English tort law had a doctrinal problem. A third-party could sue an employer vicariously for the tort of the employer’s employee committed within the scope of employment, a rule so familiar now it is nearly ubiquitous to us. But the rule was relatively new in the late 19th century and, what is more, the employer’s employee did not have, in the same manner, a vicarious cause of action against his or her employer for the negligent acts of a second, co-employee, committed within the scope of that employee’s employment.  American lawyers recognize this principle as the “fellow-servant rule,” a major historical spoke in the “unholy trinity” wheel of employer affirmative defenses that routinely defeated negligence cases filed by employees in the mid-19th to early-20th centuries. What is less familiar to American lawyers is how the fellow-servant rule emerged under tort law in the first place. 

By the mid-19th century, the English courts had fashioned a doctrine known as “common employment.” If the employer-principal worked among his employees, he was able to commit a negligent act because he was working with them. But if the same employer-principal was not physically present at the workplace, he could not be negligent. Why? Because he could not “directly” act negligently. In other words, vicarious liability did not apply in the workplace in the context of the master-servant relation. The fellow-servant (co-employee) effectively acted as a superseding cause blocking attribution of negligence to the employer-principal. “Common employment” was the doctrinal support for the fellow-servant rule. Ultimately, the doctrine probably derived from Priestly v. Fowler, decided in 1837, but its origins are not clear and it was confusingly mixed, even in Priestly itself, with elements of assumption of the risk. It is interesting that that Priestly’s author, Lord Abinger, failed to cite a single opinion in support of the rule. Wilson & Levy, Workmen’s Compensation (Oxford University Press 1938), Vol. I, p. 25, n.2.

In the debates preceding enactment of the English Employers Liability Act of 1893, Henry Asquith, then-Home Secretary and future Prime Minister, advocating on behalf of the Gladstone Government’s proposed bill, utilized to great effect the rhetoric of non-discrimination. Employees were not, as some contended, being afforded preferential treatment by the stripping of the employer “common employment” defense. On the contrary, employees were being placed in the same position as third-parties by preventing the unfair denial to them of a cause of action premised on vicarious liability. Asquith, in other words, argued for non-discrimination. Opening-up of workplace vicarious liability necessarily decimated what we would call the fellow-servant rule. But events need not have moved in this direction. Many lawyers were opposed to the entire concept of vicarious liability, and it, rather than the doctrine of common employment, might have been eliminated. But as injury occasioned by intensifying industrialism expanded—inside and outside of the workplace—constriction of liability was already, by the early 1890s, broadly politically unacceptable.

It is also interesting to note that at the time of the practical elimination of the fellow-servant rule there was not (yet – it would come a mere four years later with passage of the first English workers’ compensation act) a broad movement for eliminating contributory negligence or assumption of the risk (volenti non fit injuria). These, of course, were the other two defenses making up the unholy trinity. The reason seems to have been that English employers had been voluntarily contributing (often significantly) to worker “friendly societies,” cooperative organizations created and run by employees – a kind of collective, but private, self-insurance (a very interesting subject in its own right). The Government (and others) were concerned that ramping up liability by eliminating defenses would cause employers to stop contributing to these societies. (The lines of argument sound, to my ears, much like arguments that are made against subjecting voluntary employee benefit plans to excessive regulation: employers might drop the plans altogether in response—the risk, of course, is that something mandatory might fill the gap).

Thus, the evisceration of the unholy trinity was underway under Anglo-American tort law before workers’ compensation arrived in the United States. And even before workers’ compensation arrived in England.     

Michael C. Duff

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