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History of Personal Injury Law

People have been putting their fellow humans in danger via negligence and irresponsibility since the dawn of our species, but modern personal injury law is a more recent innovation. Law has existed in some form since the beginning of civilization, but modern legal concepts like “lawyers” and “personal injury” have not always existed. Today, the experts at The Law Office of Andrew S. Maze are looking back at the development of the legal profession and the history of personal injury law. 

Ancient Origins of Lawyers

To understand the history of personal injury law, we first need to understand the history of lawyers in general. The first proto-lawyers emerged in Ancient Greece among the orators and philosophers of that era. Officially, individuals were encouraged to plead their own cases during this time. However, people were allowed to have friends also plead their cases, particularly in order to vouch for their moral character. Ancient Greek laws banned these “friends” from receiving payment for their legal assistance, and though this law was often ignored, it still stunted the development of the legal profession. 

The Roman Empire inherited this system and operated under it until Emperor Claudius legalized the legal profession, leading to its formalization and professionalization. Ancient Rome became the first place in the Western world where an entire class of people dedicated themselves to studying and practicing law professionally. The fall of the Roman Empire was a major setback for lawyers.

The legal tradition languished during the Middle Ages, and the profession became heavily regulated by the Catholic Church and various European governments. However, by the late American colonial era, lawyers had gained importance and status in Europe and British North America. Many of the founding fathers were lawyers, including 25 of the 56 men who signed the Declaration of Independence. However, the lawyers of the founding generation were not dealing much with what we would today call “personal injury law.” This was for a few reasons that we’ll elaborate on below. 

Industrial Revolution: Early History of Personal Injury Law

The history of personal injury law as we understand it today mostly begins with the Industrial Revolution. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, personal injury lawsuits were almost unheard of because the infliction of accidental bodily injuries by one stranger upon another was very rare in tight-knit pre-industrial agricultural settlements. Other factors, like the poverty of most potential defendants and plaintiffs and the lack of dangerous machinery, also made cases very rare. However, the Industrial Revolution changed these conditions and set the stage for the formalization of personal injury law. 

During the Industrial Revolution, rural workers in the US and Western Europe moved en masse to cities to work dangerous factory jobs with high rates of serious injury. Tens of thousands of workers were being injured in factories and mines every year, which eventually led to workers suing their employers to recover damages and improve conditions. Labor unions, muckraker journalists, and government regulators eventually reduced the rates of injury, but personal injury law remained much more relevant than it was before the industrial age.

Personal Injury Law During the Early 1900s

The increasing popularization of the automobile and other industrial mass consumer goods in the opening decades of the 20th century continued to make personal injury law more relevant. All of this came to a head when two court decisions formalized two of the most important bedrock legal concepts in personal injury law. The Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad Co. decision of 1928, in which a woman sued a railroad for an injury she incurred while boarding a train, enshrined the legal concept of proximate cause. The Donoghue v. Stevenson decision of 1932, in which the defendant got sick after drinking a bottle of ginger beer that contained a dead snail, enshrined the legal concept of negligence and particularly set the tone for defective product cases. 

Personal Injury Law Today

The rich and interesting history of personal injury law has set the stage for the profession in the 21st century. Today, there are around 100,000 licensed personal injury lawyers in the USA, totaling around 5% to 7% of all American lawyers. If you are in need of a personal injury lawyer in New Jersey, contact The Law Office of Andrew S. Maze. We’ll use our decades of experience to fight for your legal interests!

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