The Emergence and Development of a Law of Torts

77 Pages Posted: 2 Jun 2015  

G. Edward White

University of Virginia School of Law

Date Written: June 1, 2015


This article discusses the origins and development of tort law in late nineteenth and early twentieth century America. It simultaneously considers tort law as an independent common law field, a subject taught in law schools, and an area of growing litigation. It attempts to delineate the various factors that combined, in the first two decades after the Civil War, to facilitate the emergence of tort law in each of those dimensions. It then discusses the peculiar history of tort law in the early twentieth century, when the advent of worker’s compensation statutes served to remove many prospective workplace accident suits from the common law tort system, but at the same time tort law continued to grow because of the collapse of the privity bar in suits involving negligently manufactured or defectively designed products. Finally, the article describes how the most problematic doctrinal issue for early twentieth-century tort law, “proximate” causation, was temporarily “resolved” by courts and commentators through the “risk-relation-duty” analysis of causation issues proposed by Judge Benjamin Cardozo in the majority opinion in Palsgraf v. Long Island R.R. and initially adopted by the First Restatement of Torts in 1935. Cardozo and the Restatement’s framers hoped that the analysis would enable tort law to get beyond the seemingly intractable issue of which causes of accidents were “remote” and which “proximate,” but the experiment utterly failed, leaving tort law as doctrinally uncertain, and epistemologically complex, as it had always been.

Suggested Citation

White, G. Edward, The Emergence and Development of a Law of Torts (June 1, 2015). University of St. Thomas Law Journal, Vol. 11, 2015; Virginia Public Law and Legal Theory Research Paper No. 2015-32. Available at SSRN: or

G. Edward White (Contact Author)

University of Virginia School of Law ( email )

580 Massie Road
Charlottesville, VA 22903
United States
(434) 924-3455 (Phone)


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