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The Surprisingly Short History Of Personal Injury Law

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Based on how many commercials you see on television, you'd think personal injury law has been a dominant feature of the American legal landscape for a long time. The first advertisement for personal injury law services, however, didn't air until 1979. As recently as 1900, it's hard to really even describe it as a distinct field of law. The rise of a critical concept, negligence, changed everything.

How It Was

Some variant of legal responsibility for injuries goes all the way back to ancient times, but the "eye for an eye" view of justice is a far cry from how we handle things today. While tort law, the field that governs personal injuries, emerged distinctly in the 1600s, it was still common well into the 1800s for the system to immunize defendants against responsibility for a range of actions and failures that would be compensable now. In a number of ways, people prior to 1900 simply accepted misfortune as a fact of life, and the idea that someone should be compensated for it seemed alien.

What Changed?

One of the biggest shifts came with industrialization. In the 1800s, it was normal for workers to have to sue their employers under tort laws in order to be compensated for workplace injuries. In essence, you had to sue your employer for medical bills and lost wages the way you'd expect to sue a stranger for harm caused by a car crash today. As the workers' compensation system emerged in the 1900s, the idea that someone was supposed to be responsible when a person was hurt became ingrained in the public conscience.

Industrialization also produced the automobile, one of the greatest sources of injury cases ever invented. Mass manufacturing of products by national and multinational corporations also meant that more people could be harmed by a single act of negligence, fostering what we think of today as product liability law. In the course of a century, it became normal to assume people were responsible for the harm that they allowed to come to others.


A 1974 incident resulted in a $2.4 million lawsuit involving a pop singer who was assaulted at poorly secured Howard Johnson's motel significantly expanded the definition of negligence in American personal injury law. The large award in the case incentivized attorneys to enter into injury practice. In 1979, the first personal injury practice ads aired, changing the field permanently.

For more information, contact a law office like Johnson Motinger Greenwood Law Firm.