Liability, Employability, and Disabled Workers’ Injury Lawsuits in the Early 20th-Century United States

Friday, January 8, 2016: 8:50 AM
Room 313/314 (Hilton Atlanta)
Nate Holdren, Drake University
This paper focuses on the aftermath of lawsuits brought by disabled workers who suffered injuries at work in the early 20th century United States. Despite the widespread employment of people with disabilities, injury law tended to presume that workers were free of physical impairments that we would today call disabilities. This gap between law and economic practice made injuries to disabled people legally ambiguous. As a result, disabled people who suffered further disabling injuries often sued. These suits turned on questions like whether workers blinded by the loss of one eye should be compensated for lost quantity of body (losing one eye) or lost capacity (losing all sight). Over time courts increasingly held employers’ liable for total post-injury incapacity.

The paper builds upon work by legal historians, disability historians, and business historians in order to argue that disabled people’s economic prospects were intimately bound up with the legal reconstruction of risk and uncertainty in the early twentieth century. I draw on business records, trade journals, state commission reports, and newspapers, to show that employers responded to this increase in injury liability by treating disabled people as a source of financial uncertainty. Disabled workers either bore greater individual risks of injury, or posed a financial risk for employers, which lowered disabled workers’ job prospects. Law redrew the boundaries of workplace injury liability, prompting employers to transform disabled people’s economic lives.