The Transformation of the Civil Trial and the Emergence of American Tort Law
73 Pages Posted: 23 Aug 2016 Last revised: 9 Apr 2018
Date Written: August 22, 2016
Everyone agrees that American tort law expanded significantly in the late nineteenth century. But the story of that change, as usually told, is radically incomplete. One important precondition of tort law as we now know it was a major change in evidence law, one that only began to emerge after 1850. Before then, plaintiffs, defendants, and other “interested” parties were almost universally prohibited from testifying in civil trials. With this prohibition on party testimony, what the jury knew about the facts underlying a tort action was derivative and incomplete. Far fewer tort actions were brought at all, because often the only evidence available to the plaintiff was his or her own account of what had happened, and that was inadmissible. But with the change, victims of personal injury were now able to describe, before juries, the circumstances in which they had been injured. They were able to talk about what they had done, what the entities they were suing had done or not done, and how they had suffered. They no longer needed the fortuitous presence of third-party witnesses to elicit testimony about how had they had been injured. The abolition of the prohibition on party testimony, in short, made it much easier to succeed in personal injury lawsuits.
At stake in this transformation was the very epistemology of the civil trial. With the admission of party testimony, civil trials went from being pre-modern efforts to resolve disputes whose outcomes were affected by the spiritual weight assigned to oaths taken by third-party witnesses, to the modern searches for factual truth that we now (incorrectly) assume they always have been. Without this transformation, other factors that later brought about modern tort liability could not have exercised the influence that they did have. The transformation created the very conditions under which modern tort law could, and then did, emerge. Yet the transformation and its significance for tort law have gone largely unrecognized. Modern tort scholars appear to be completely unaware of the prohibition on party testimony, and have therefore failed for more than a century to take it into account in the way they have written and taught about the development of the law of torts. Because the rules and practices that preceded the transformation have now completely disappeared from modern torts cases, what it accomplished may appear, incorrectly, to have always been the case. But it is lack of visibility, rather than lack of responsibility, that has actually been at work in hiding the significance of the transformation for the emergence of modern tort law.
Keywords: torts, evidence, civil trial, tort law history
JEL Classification: K13, K41
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation