Tort Negligence, Cost-Benefit Analysis and Tradeoffs: A Closer Look at the Controversy
38 Pages Posted: 11 Apr 2008 Last revised: 16 Apr 2008
What is the proper role of cost-benefit analysis in understanding the tort concept of negligence or reasonable care? A straightforward question, you might think. But it is a question that manages to elicit groans of exasperation from those on both sides of the controversy.
For most utilitarians and adherents to law and economics, the answer is obvious: to say that people should not be negligent is to say that they should minimize the sum of the costs of accidents and the costs of preventing accidents. Under the economic formulation of the famous Learned Hand test, they should take a precaution if but only if the marginal costs (or burden, B) of that precaution are less than its marginal benefits (in the form of reduced risks of injury, measured by multiplying the probability (P) of the injury times the magnitude (L) of the injury if it occurs). If B>PxL, it would be absurd to require the greater expenditure, B.
For many advocates of a fairness, corrective justice, rights-based, or contractualist perspective, the opposite answer is equally obvious. Permitting a person to impose risks of harm on others merely because he would thereby obtain a benefit (or would otherwise incur a burden) greater than the discounted value of the harm he might inflict, amounts to authorizing him to dump the costs of his risky activities on innocent victims. To permit this type of sacrifice of individuals on the altar of aggregate social welfare is morally abhorrent.
Both sets of criticism have important elements of truth. Neither an unqualified cost-benefit analysis nor an unqualified rights-based rejection of tradeoffs is defensible - either as a description of tort doctrine and practice or as a normative prescription. However, a qualified (sensitive) consequentialist approach can accommodate legitimate criticisms of cost-benefit analysis: the consequentialist can launder preferences, and can consider the distribution of risk both in the social welfare calculus and in determining whether to compensate. At the same time, a qualified (tough-minded) deontological approach can accommodate the legitimate need to recognize tradeoffs: the deontologist can permit intrapersonal but not interpersonal aggregation of risks and benefits, can apply the concept of threshold deontology to risky activity, and can consider individual rather than population risk. I conclude that the formulation of the Learned Hand test found in the Restatement Third of Torts is broad enough to encompass each of these qualified approaches.
Keywords: negligence, cost-benefit, reasonable, reasonable care, risk, Learned Hand, corrective justice
JEL Classification: D63, K13, K32
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation