GOLDLAW: History of Personal Injury Law
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History of Personal Injury Law

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Personal Injury Law

As a specific branch of the law, Personal Injury Law is one of the newest in the United States. It came into the public eye during the late 1970’s, although the specialty has existed as a more general form of law since the late 1700’s. Today, it makes up a significant portion of the legal profession, employing over 175,000 lawyers and support personnel across 64,331 personal injury-related businesses.

Biblical Times

According to available records, the first known legal action was in 1850 B.C., with the first written laws established by a Babylonian King named Hammurabi in approximately 1700 B.C. References to lawyers are found in early parts of the Bible, with them being referred to as “experts in the law.” Civilizations at this time generally followed the idea of lex talionis, or the “law of retribution.” This law ensured that an offended party be repaid by the offender the same amount and in the same way the offender committed the crime. Associated with Mosaic Law, – “an eye for an eye” – the laws were understood by the people, and witnesses were responsible for bringing the offender to court where they were judged according to the crime.

Ancient Greece and Rome

As the institutions of law were used to unify, regulate and maintain social order in many societies, the role of lawyers continued to develop. In Ancient Greece, the Athenian legal system allowed individuals to be represented by others in courts. In most cases this “partner” brought by the plaintiff was only there to testify that the plaintiff was of “good judgment and morals,” and was not done for financial gain. Most of these early lawyers did not have legal training. Instead, they were advocates for the people, trained in oration, as skilled speakers had more of an influence over juries. Generally, these richer, more educated members of society offered what would be known today as “legal aid” to the low-income society, to gain their trust and have more influence within society.

The same situation existed in Ancient Rome. Although law prevented these early “attorneys” from accepting fees, such laws were widely ignored. Like their Greek counterparts, these early Roman were trained in rhetoric, not the law. But, they gave legal opinions on legal issues to anyone that requested them, making the Romans the first society to have a group of people who spent their time thinking about legal problems as a profession. By the 4th century, Roman attorneys even had a bar exam they were required to pass before practicing!

The First Law School

Scholars agree that the University of Bologna in Italy was not only the first university on record, but also the first to begin teaching law, in the 11th century. With the formal teaching of Roman law, Bologna became the center of a great revival of legal scholarship. Within a few decades, the study of canon law, – ecclesiastical law, especially that of the Roman Catholic Church – was launched as legal science. This branch of legal study eventually traveled from Bologna to schools throughout Europe, transforming European legal culture and practice.

“Res Ipsa Loquitur”

By the 1600’s, most plaintiffs were able to receive compensation for losses due to personal injury. Coming from Latin and meaning “the thing speaks for itself,” it is a doctrine in common law under which a court can infer negligence from the nature of an accident or injury in the absence of direct evidence on how any defendant behaved in the context of tort litigation. Res Ipsa Loquitur became the main principle of tort law, and is still an underlying theme of the law today.

First Industrial Revolution in the United States (1760 – 1830)

With the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the United States in the late 18th century, personal injury and the law started to merge more consistently because of the expansion of the working class and the overall poor working conditions many faced in their jobs. Unfortunately, the legal system did not allow for much to be done for workers injured on the job. When a rare case was considered by the court, plaintiffs were only compensated for physical injuries caused by another. Despite the reluctance of the courts to award compensation, it was not unusual for plaintiffs to receive monetary support from private associations and charitable organizations.

 Early 1900’s – The 2nd Industrial Revolution

Personal injury cases were still not common in the United States at the turn of the century. Compensation was still solely based on the severity of physical injury, as non-economic damages, such as suffering were not considered in the awards process. However, populist sentiment for organized workers movements was beginning to grow.

This social change was guided in large part by group of crusading writers known as the “muckrakers” movement, who were active from about 1890 to 1910. Among the best-known were newspaper writer Jacob Riis, magazine writers Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell, and novelist Upton Sinclair. These writers helped bring about a number of governmental reforms by writing stories about the suffering of personal injury by underpaid workers, corruption in government, and questionable, back-room dealings by high-powered business executives.

The most well-known and influential of the “muckrakers” was probably Upton Sinclair. In 1904, he spent seven weeks working undercover in Chicago’s meatpacking plants to research his ground-breaking, 1906 novel The Jungle, which exposed labor and sanitary conditions in the industry and the poor living conditions of immigrant workers, causing immediate uproar. In part, his discoveries led to the passage of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act, which eventually evolved to what we know as the modern-day Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

As the second Industrial Revolution began in the U.S., more people were moving from rural communities to cities to find work in the mining, railroad, and manufacturing industries. In addition, long hours, child labor, dangerous machinery and equipment, and little regulation led to more frequent and severe personal injury, and an increased death rate among workers.

Faced with growing public anger, states started creating worker’s compensation systems. The first comprehensive workers’ compensation law was passed by Wisconsin in 1911. Nine other states passed regulations that year. Mississippi was the final state to pass workers’ comp legislation in 1948.

1920’s and 1930’s

Personal injury claims began to rise again in the 1920’s due to the accessibility of the automobile. Because vehicle safety was poorly regulated, the advent of the car brought more accidents and injuries, resulting in a surge of personal injury claims. Two cases in particular brought about two foundational concepts in personal injury law:

  • 1928 – Helen Palsgraf Case – While trying to board a moving train with a package of fireworks, two guards tried to help Ms. Palsgraf, assuming she was falling. She dropped the package and was injured. Her lawsuit brought about the legal concept of proximate cause.
  • 1932 – Donoghue vs. Stevenson – Although this case happened in Scotland, it was a landmark case, as it was instrumental in shaping tort law and the doctrine of negligence.


Prior to 1976, lawyers could not advertise their services. They could only solicit via “word of mouth,” or by distributing business cards. In 1976, two lawyers in Phoenix , John Bates and Van O’Steen placed an ad in the Arizona Republic newspaper, after concluding that their small practice could not survive unless they were allowed to advertise about their providing legal services at a low cost. However, the state of Arizona regarded this as a violation of ethics laws.

The U.S. Supreme Court concluded it had appellate jurisdiction over the case, and agreed to hear it. Attorneys for the defendant, the State Bar of Arizona, made the following argument:

“The organized bar traditionally took the position that a lawyer was not permitted to actively publicize his services. In effect, it was presumed that every lawyer ad an established clientele, or that a lawyer’s reputation for good work would ultimately led others to seek out the lawyer’s services, Under this approach, direct publicity for lawyers was strictly controlled.”

The Supreme Court rejected this tradition as a “historical anachronism,” which created barriers to those entering the legal profession, and functioned to “perpetuate the market position of established attorneys.”

And with that, lawyers were allowed to advertise. Personal injury firms soon took advantage of the Supreme Court decision. The firm of Jacoby & Meyers was the first to advertise in something other than the Yellow Pages, advertising on television in 1979.

 The “Frivolous Lawsuit”

The 1990’s and 2000’s were known as the time of “frivolous” lawsuits, many of them claiming personal injury A frivolous lawsuit has no legitimate legal or factual support. In many cases, they are nonsensical, ridiculous and absurd, and are often filed only to harass the defendant and generate media attention.

The most famous personal injury case frequently considered as “frivolous,” actually was not frivolous at all. In Liebeck vs. McDonald’s Restaurants, Stella Liebeck sued McDonald’s after spilling a cup of hot coffee in her lap. How could a spilled coffee equate to a lawsuit? In the case of Liebeck, because it resulted in severe, 3rd degree burns on her legs, lap, and groin. In addition, McDonald’s had already received 700+ complaints about the scalding hot coffee, but decided to ignore them, and continue to serve coffee that was 40 degrees hotter than most other restaurants. Before suing, Liebeck attempted to settle the matter for $800. McDonald’s refused. Ultimately, a jury found in Liebeck’s favor, and awarded her $2.7M in damages.

The Future…

Personal injury law continues to evolve in the United States. Here are some trends we can expect to see within the industry in 2023 and beyond:


  • As companies such as Uber and Lyft continue to grow, so will the number of unqualified drivers transporting people.
  • There’s a lot of grey area here concerning settlements from accident claims and receiving compensation from rideshare companies, and with little legislation on the books, this situation continues to worsen.


  • The use of drones or UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) for both professional and recreational activities is increasing.
  • With that comes an increased chance of an injury due to being hit by an inadequately piloted vehicle.
  • Product liability and invasion of privacy are also factors that will play into potential personal injury claims.


  • The number of car crashes due to drivers being distracted by their phones has increased significantly in recent years.
  • Law enforcement and safety organizations will be trying to regulate the use of mobile phones, because of their unsafe use by drivers.

Have questions about a potential personal injury case? The experienced attorneys and support staff at GOLDLAW are here to help! Check out our website, or call             561-222-2222 to schedule a COMPLIMENTARY consultation.