The Level of Litigation: Private Versus Social Optimality

John M. Olin Center for Law, Economics, and Business, Harvard Law School, Discussion Paper No. 184

Posted: 1 Oct 1996

See all articles by Steven Shavell

Steven Shavell

Harvard Law School; National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

Date Written: June 1996

Abstract

The legal system is a very expensive social institution. Increasingly we read about the growing volume and high cost of suit, and we observe the use of various measures to reduce litigation activity, for example, requirements that losing plaintiffs bear defendants' legal fees, ceilings on damage awards, and judicial fostering of settlement. At the same time, we occasionally encounter the view that suit might need to be encouraged to overcome the private costs of litigation, and we notice some employment of policies promoting litigation, such as legal aid programs and requirements that losing defendants bear plaintiffs' legal fees. Against this background, I ask the basic question: What is the socially optimal level of litigation given its expense -- and how does it compare to the privately-determined level of litigation? The former and the latter levels of legal activity generally differ, and the reasons involve two fundamental types of externality. The first is a negative externality: when a party spends on litigation, he does not take into account the litigation costs that he induces others to incur. The second is a positive externality: when a party engages in litigation, he does not take into account the effect that this has on incentives to reduce harm. In consequence, the privately-determined level of litigation can depart from the socially optimal level -- there may either be too much or too little litigation -- and corrective social policy may help to remedy the divergence. To develop these points, I investigate the standard model of potentially harmful behavior and the liability system, but allowing for the costliness of litigation. I analyze both the private versus the social incentive to bring suit, and the private versus the social incentive to settle.

JEL Classification: H10, K10, K41

Suggested Citation

Shavell, Steven, The Level of Litigation: Private Versus Social Optimality (June 1996). John M. Olin Center for Law, Economics, and Business, Harvard Law School, Discussion Paper No. 184. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=10150

Steven Shavell (Contact Author)

Harvard Law School ( email )

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617-495-3668 (Phone)
617-496-2256 (Fax)

National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

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