His mark is most readily visible through fresh entries in a legal text he brought to life in 1952 and which has since been edited by his son. It remains a seminal guide to workers' compensation law.
Larson's genius went beyond magisterial analysis of legal reasoning to his philosophical vision on how workers' compensation contributed to a broad, evolving system of economic security for American households.
He was born in 1910 in Sioux Falls, S.D. His years as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford in the depth of the Great Depression had a profound effect on him. He was an officer at the university's famed debating club and stayed on to earn a law degree. Larson closely observed Britain's and Western Europe's welfare programs.
Back in the United States, Larson practiced, then taught law, followed by work during the war in the federal government's price control agency. In 1945, he joined the faculty at Cornell Law School in Ithaca, N.Y.
Before long, building on earlier work in workers' compensation as a practicing lawyer, he mastered the subject. Lengthy monastic effort led to the publication in early 1952 of the 1,592-page treatise, "The Law of Workmen's Compensation." It quickly became a standard reference for workers' compensation judges, lawyers and legislators.
Larson had the idea that (in his son Lex's words) "if you can find common threads in the way courts in the various states were deciding various legal issues, the field of workers' compensation could be recast much more as a single, national body of law."
A currently practicing lawyer calls Larson's guide essential. He said, "It is imperative to see the breadth of possible interpretations from various jurisdictions to fully understand what is at stake."
Larson's vision was apparent in his other writings, perceptively analyzed by his biographer, David Stebenne. Larson saw workers' compensation law not as a radical redesign of the old tort system but rather as the earliest element of a new and peculiarly American system of social benefits. Unemployment insurance, nonoccupational disability insurance and retirement programs were part of this system.
He thought some programs were better run in the public sector, others in the private sector. Workers' compensation was for him well designed: privately financed, with benefits set according to the injured worker's wages. He applauded state-mandated nonoccupational disability insurance, an idea since endorsed by few states.
Larson dissected New Deal social programs with a constructive point of view. President Eisenhower's administration, seeking public policy moderates, sought out Larson.
He served for more than two years as undersecretary of labor, drafting model workers' compensation and nonoccupational disability programs for the District of Columbia. They were squelched by conservative Republicans and state workers' compensation administrators. He revisited drafting a model law in the 1960s; no states adopted it.
Eventually, promoting his political views did him in with conservative Republicans and congressional Democrats (such as Lyndon Johnson) and his full-time career in national politics came to an end.
This visionary scholar kept working on new editions of his workers' compensation treatise until a week before his death in 1993. It remains, in the words of an early admirer, a perfect framework for understanding workers' compensation.
PETER ROUSMANIERE is an expert on the workers' compensation industry.
August 1, 2011
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