Symposium: Does the World Still Need United States Tort Law? Or Did it Ever?: Torts as Public Wrongs
Michael L. Rustad
Suffolk University Law School
March 7, 2011
Pepperdine Law Review, Vol. 38, p. 433, 2011
Suffolk University Law School Research Paper No. 11-12
This Article is a rejoinder to the civil recourse theorist's claim that tort law will be better served by retreating to the philosopher's prefecture of private wrongs. A subsidiary goal of this Article is to refute John Goldberg's claim that my sociologically-inspired theory of torts as public wrongs serves the interests of tort reformers rather than American consumers. In a nutshell, civil recourse theory is "tort reform in disguise," not the concept of torts as fulfilling wide-ranging purposes such as the social control of corporations. If judges adopt civil recourse theory, they will be less inclined to recognize new causes of action and plaintiff classes deferring instead to legislatures. Tort law is the multi-tasker of the common law and does far more than redress private wrongs.
Tort law not only redresses private wrongs, it also advances general deterrence through social control. The contemporary Toyota sudden acceleration claims and the BP oil spill are examples of how tort law tackles collective injuries impacting the consuming public, the environment, and communities. While it is unclear what role tort law will ultimately play in redressing these collective injury cases, social interests will be relevant. This Article, which makes the case that tort law can and should redress public wrongs, unfolds in six parts. Part II introduces the idea of the teleological telescope and the deontological microscope illustrating their operation in sociological theory.
In this part of the Article, I explain how the grand theories of classical sociology were telescopic, but some modern theorists miniaturized their perspective to focus on the individual and the small group. Part III describes how modern tort theory has divided into competing camps based upon whether legal academics use a macroscopic or a microscopic approach. The basic distinction is that tort scholars use either a functional telescope (to study public wrongs) contextually or the philosopher's microscope to understand individual cases and controversies in an abstract way. The division between macrotort and microtort theories is the functional equivalent of how these approaches play out in classical and contemporary sociological theory. Torts have a micro aspect applicable to the pressing facts of the individual case and the relationships between the parties, but they also have macro features such as general deterrence and social control that fill in the interstices between criminal and civil law and resonate our collective beliefs.
Part IV comments on civil recourse theory's obscurantism and its lack of fit with the empirical reality of modern tort law's complexity. In this part of the Article, I discuss the civil recourse theorist's misguided attempt to reduce the multiplicity of American tort law to one single "true" quintessence. To me, it seems that the main problem with this pure theory of tort law is its separation from social context such as gender, race, social class, power, and social change. What is important to note here is that torts often redress public wrongs, beyond the interests of the immediate parties.
Part V gives my pluralistic account of torts as public wrongs. While the manifest function of tort law is civil recourse or compensation, its latent function is vindicating public wrongs. The latent function - the hidden face - of tort law is its public policy role addressing corporate misconduct from the bottom up rather than through a top-down government monolith. The key institution is the plaintiff in the role of private attorney general who seeks civil recourse but also fulfills a broader purpose of identifying and punishing reckless corporate defendants who had previously evaded the attention of the public authorities.
Part VI applies my sociological theory of public wrongs to the widespread problems created by dangerously defective software. The tort law lag in addressing defective software demonstrates the need to permit tort law to evolve to address social problems. Hence, the focus is how "we the people" need brawny tort remedies to address social problems in the information-based economy.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 119
Date posted: March 8, 2011 ; Last revised: April 25, 2011