Insurance as Commodifying Knowledge in the American Courtroom, 1870-1910

Nate Holdren

This paper looks at late 19th and early 20th century employee injury law. The paper considers damage awards for injured plaintiffs as a form of commodifying injuries and losses. Legal doctrines of fault were rules for whether or not to commodify an injury, and doctrines in the law of damages were rules for how to price and injury once commodified. The paper argues that in the late 19th century insurance industry derived terms and concepts became increasingly important in how legal actors did the mental work required to translate injuries into dollar amounts. I refer to the know-how required to do this translation as ‘commodifying knowledge,’ meaning the knowledge required to turn something (or someone) into a commodity. I further argue that the role of insurance and commodification marks a partial continuity between the court-based system of injury law and no-fault system introduced to the U.S. by workmen’s compensation laws created in the 1910s.