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Tort Law and Moral Luck


John C. P. Goldberg


Harvard Law School

Benjamin C. Zipursky


Fordham University School of Law


Cornell Law Review, Vol. 92, 2007
Vanderbilt Public Law Research Paper No. 07-15

Abstract:     
Tort liability often turns to a substantial degree on an actor's good or bad luck. For example, a driver may be lucky to be more skilled than average, or unlucky to be less. Alternatively, she may be lucky to avoid hitting a pedestrian, or unlucky to hit him, or very unlucky to hit a person with an 'eggshell skull.' Whether a person's conduct falls below the relevant standard of conduct, whether it causes injury, and how much liability results - these matters determine whether someone is a tortfeasor and, if so, how much she will have to pay in damages. And yet each of these factors lies outside of her control. Because tort liability is sensitive to luck in these ways, scholars such as Christopher Schroeder and Jeremy Waldron have condemned tort law as morally arbitrary. Others, such as Justice Holmes and Judge Posner, have seized on tort law's luck-sensitivity to argue that tort - which seems on its face to be a law of wrongs - really has nothing to do with wrongs. Assessments of conduct as right and wrong, they suppose, cannot possibly attribute so much significance to dumb luck.

In this Article we are argue that the role of luck in torts does not undermine the case for understanding tort as a law of wrongs, nor does it make the case for dismissing tort law as morally arbitrary. Drawing upon the canonical articles on "moral luck" by Bernard Williams and Thomas Nagel, we argue that is false to suppose that an actor cannot be held responsible for having committed a wrong unless all the relevant features of the situation in which she acted were in principle subject to her control.

The Article proceeds by distinguishing and explaining two aspects of tort law's luck-sensitivity: (1) luck regarding whether one's tortious conduct causes damage, and, if so, how much ("causal luck"); and (2) luck regarding whether one's efforts to comply with tort law's objective standards are successful ("compliance luck"). Causal luck, we argue, does not introduce objectionable arbitrariness into tort law. On the contrary, it is a natural and necessary feature of a body of law that is concerned to permit those who have been wronged to redress the wrongs done to them. As to the problem of compliance luck, we explain why it is sensible for courts and legislatures to fashion tort norms of conduct with external measures of compliance, and why such norms can properly count as norms that define "wrongs." We conclude by suggesting that careful attention to the particular senses in which torts are wrongs not only entails the rejection of familiar critiques of tort, but also sheds light on values that tort law can serve within in our legal system, as well as the content and operation of legal and extra-legal notions of wrongdoing and responsibility.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 55

Keywords: causation, Holmes, luck, norms, objective standard, Posner, redress, responsibility, Schroeder, Waldron, wrongs

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Date posted: September 22, 2007  

Suggested Citation

Goldberg, John C. P. and Zipursky, Benjamin C., Tort Law and Moral Luck. Cornell Law Review, Vol. 92, 2007; Vanderbilt Public Law Research Paper No. 07-15. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1015930

Contact Information

John C. P. Goldberg (Contact Author)
Harvard Law School ( email )
Areeda 232
1545 Massachusetts Ave
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States
617-496-2086 (Phone)
Benjamin C. Zipursky
Fordham University School of Law ( email )
140 West 62nd Street
New York, NY 10023
United States
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