Celebrating 100 years of Workers’ Compensation in Tennessee

By Judge Allen Phillips, Jackson

Allen Phillips

In 1919, the Tennessee General Assembly passed the “Workmen’s Compensation Act.” Thus began the first century of what has been called the “Grand Bargain” in our state: employers providing benefits to injured workers without regard to fault, and in exchange the worker recovering only those benefits set forth in the Act.

Before the law’s inception, injured workers in Tennessee had no effective remedy against employers for workplace injuries. Suits for injuries on the job frequently were met with common tort-law defenses like assumption of the risk, contributory negligence, and the fellow-servant rule. In moving toward reform, Tennessee recognized the shortcomings of a system that left too many victims of industry as virtual wards of the state. As expressed by Albert Roberts, Tennessee’s governor at the time, injuries and deaths placed those affected “on the mercy and charity of the world,” making workers’ compensation legislation “an economic necessity.”

Since the grandiose aims of the initial law, workers’ compensation has evolved just as the workforce it was designed to protect. Changes, reforms, and an ever-developing body of case law has moved Tennessee workers’ compensation from the early Twentieth Century into the Twenty-first. Cases involving falls from horses have morphed into cases where a worker is injured in her own home, an alternative work site. Battles over independent-contractor status now will be fought in the context of a “gig economy.” All the while, the system to adjudicate these claims evolves to meet the challenges.

During this Centennial Year, the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation and the Court of Workers’ Compensation Claims will have a series of events at various locations across the State. These celebrations will provide participants in the system the opportunity to gather, socialize, and reflect on the important role the workers’ compensation system has played for the past century.

We hope to see you at one of the events and look forward to your continued input into making our system one that serves the needs of employers and employees going forward.

  • Memphis: March 28, 1:30-3 p.m. Central
  • Jackson: March 29, 2-4 p.m. Central
  • More locations to be announced as they are scheduled.
  • Bureau-wide: June 12; in Murfreesboro at the 2019 Educational Conference; details TBA.

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