Harry Potter and the Trouble with Tort Theory

50 Pages Posted: 7 Oct 2010 Last revised: 14 Nov 2010

See all articles by Scott Hershovitz

Scott Hershovitz

University of Michigan Law School

Date Written: October 5, 2010


Economists argue that tort law promotes an efficient allocation of resources to safety, while philosophers contend that it dispenses corrective justice. Despite the divide, the leading tort theories share something in common: They are grounded in an unduly narrow view of tort. Both economists and philosophers confuse the institution of tort law with the rules that are distinctive of it. They offer theories of tort’s substantive rules, but for the most part ignore the procedures by which those rules are implemented. As a consequence, both miss and misconstrue much about tort law.

The problem is particularly acute for economists. They analyze the impact of tort’s substantive rules on accident and accident avoidance costs. Yet, the institution of tort law generates many other costs and benefits for society, and those costs and benefits affect the optimal arrangement of tort’s rules. The fact that economists have not factored these additional costs and benefits into their analyses calls into question their descriptive and normative claims about tort.

Corrective justice theory is not in as much trouble as the economic approach, but it is troubled still. Philosophers’ neglect of the procedural dimension of tort has caused them to overlook ways that tort does justice between wrongdoers and victims. And it has led them to make misleading claims about the nature of both corrective justice and tort law.

This article draws out the trouble with tort theory through a thought experiment, starring Harry Potter. Potter’s magic helps to highlight the features of tort that the leading theories overlook. Once they are in view, the article considers the ways in which the omissions cast doubt on the claims those theories make, investigates ways they might improved, and offers several observations about the choice between them.

Keywords: tort, tort theory, corrective justice, efficiency, harry potter

JEL Classification: K00, K13

Suggested Citation

Hershovitz, Scott, Harry Potter and the Trouble with Tort Theory (October 5, 2010). Stanford Law Review, Forthcoming, U of Michigan Public Law Working Paper No. 219, U of Michigan Law & Econ, Empirical Legal Studies Center Paper No. 10-027, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1687923

Scott Hershovitz (Contact Author)

University of Michigan Law School ( email )

625 South State Street
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1215
United States

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