Workers' Compensation Act
The Workers' Compensation Act in Georgia provides immediate medical and income benefits for injured workers, while fixing the amount of benefits paid by employers. It was adopted in 1920 and is now codified as title 34, chapter 9, of the Official Code of Georgia Annotated.
Georgia's adoption of workers' compensation was part of a national and international movement. Germany created the first workers' compensation system in 1884, and England followed in 1897. In America workers' compensation was a key initiative of the Progressive movement, which was led by the National Civic Federation and similar organizations, with the political backing of U. S. president Theodore Roosevelt. Most states adopted the system between 1911 and 1920. Georgia, like most of the southern states, was slow to enact the legislation, but it eventually became the forty-second state to do so. Factors leading to Georgia's adoption of the act included the rise of cotton manufacturing and the parallel rise of injury litigation by textile workers, pressure from the Georgia Federation of Labor, initiatives from the National Civic Federation, and the leadership of Georgia's first commissioner of commerce and labor, H. M. Stanley. Adoption of the act marked a major departure from Georgia's laissez-faire approach to workers' welfare.
Why It Was Adopted
In Georgia, as elsewhere, the rapid rise of industrialization in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries resulted in a growing number of work-related injuries. The old common law of employer liability failed to meet the needs of injured workers and their employers.
Under the earlier law, most employee claims failed because of legal hurdles. Workers were required to prove that their injuries resulted from the negligence, or legal fault, of the employer, which excluded claims for job injuries resulting from natural conditions or from the strain of physical labor. Courts barred other claims by applying three powerful legal defenses. First, under the assumption of risk defense, a worker was held to accept the hazards common to the employment, such as the construction worker's risk of falling from tall buildings. Second, the fellow servant rule prevented claims against employers for injuries caused by coworkers. And finally, the contributory negligence defense barred recovery when the worker's conduct added even slightly to the employer's greater negligence. Employers also faced risks of their own. The common law prevented most injury claims from reaching a jury, but the few cases that did proceed to a jury trial could be financially ruinous to employers because sympathetic juries typically awarded large settlements in favor of the injured worker.
Workers' compensation overcame these problems by simplifying claims for the workers in exchange for the adoption of fixed schedules of benefits to be paid by the employers. Under the new system, workers are no longer required to prove fault and instead need only show that their injuries arose within the scope and course of the employment. The assumption of risk, fellow servant, and contributory negligence defenses are no longer allowed. Employers no longer risk unfavorable verdicts from hostile juries because jury trials have been eliminated. Benefits to injured workers are now paid according to statutory formulas.
How It Works
In Georgia most employers with three or more employees are required to provide workers' compensation coverage by purchasing workers' compensation insurance or by funding approved plans of self-insurance. The Workers' Compensation Act excludes such industries as the railroad and maritime activity industries, which have their own compensation systems, and certain occupational categories, particularly agricultural and domestic workers.
The injured worker receives medical care from approved doctors, income benefits for lost wages (temporary total or temporary partial disability), and if applicable, payment for the loss of limb or physical ability (permanent partial disability). In the event of death, benefits are paid to the worker's dependent family members. The amount of weekly benefits is fixed at two-thirds of the worker's average weekly wage up to the current maximum weekly benefit ($425 per week as of July 1, 2003). The system is designed to function with a minimum of litigation; most claims are undisputed, and the rest are decided by administrative law judges in nonjury hearings.
James B. Hiers Jr. and Robert R. Potter, Georgia Workers' Compensation: Law and Practice, 4th ed. (Suwanee, Ga.: Harrison, 1999).
Richard C. Kissiah, Georgia Workers' Compensation Law, 2d ed. (Newark, N.J.: LexisNexis, 2002).
Duncan Maysilles, University of Georgia
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