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Rights-Based Theories of Accident Law

50 Pages Posted: 26 Aug 2011  

Gregory J. Hall

University of Pennsylvania

Date Written: August 24, 2011


This article shows that extant rights-based theories of accident law contain a gaping hole. They inadequately address the following question: What justifies using community standards to assign accident costs in tort law?

In the United States, the jury determines negligence for accidental harm by asking whether the defendant met the objective reasonable person standard. However, what determines the content of the reasonable person standard is enigmatic. Some tort theorists say that the content is filled out by juries using cost benefit analysis while others say that juries apply community norms and conventions. I demonstrate that what is missing from this exchange is a theory that adequately justifies using a particular way of filling out the content of the objective reasonable person standard. Rights-based theories are particularly guilty of ignoring what I call the central normative concern. That concern is what criterion should determine the amount of precaution an individual must use to avoid being justifiably assigned others’ accident costs. To identify this problem I focus on rights-based theories of accident law.

After showing how several rights-based theories of accident law inadequately address the central normative concern, I briefly outline a theory of assigning accident costs that has the potential for offering the best answer to the central normative concern. The most important aspect of this theory, called democratic community standard theory, is that it provides a justification for using community standards to adjudicate tort claims. This justification employs Kantian political theory based on how free and equal individuals would choose to assign accident costs.

Keywords: Torts, Rawls, Dworkin, tort theory, accidents, jurisprudence, rights, justice, risk, precaution, assignment of accident costs, reasonable person theory, Kantian normative political theory, social welfare, social tort insurance, Kantian rights-based theories, democratic community standard theory

JEL Classification: K13

Suggested Citation

Hall, Gregory J., Rights-Based Theories of Accident Law (August 24, 2011). University of Penn Law School, Public Law Research Paper No. 11-35. Available at SSRN: or

Gregory J. Hall (Contact Author)

University of Pennsylvania ( email )

Philadelphia, PA 19104
United States

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