Is There Really No Liability Without Fault: A Critique of Goldberg & Zipursky
15 Pages Posted: 7 Dec 2016 Last revised: 15 Apr 2017
Date Written: December 5, 2016
This paper comments on John C.P. Goldberg & Benjamin C. Zipursky, The Strict Liability in Fault and the Fault in Strict Liability 85 Fordham L.Rev. 743 (2016). In their important writings over the past twenty years, Professors Goldberg and Zipursky have argued that torts are conduct-based wrongs. A conduct-based wrong is one where an agent violates the right of another by failing to conform her conduct to the standard required by the law. Strict liability in tort poses a formidable challenge to the claim that all torts are wrongs whose distinctive feature is that they violate an applicable standard of conduct. When lawyers speak of strict liability causes of action, they are describing a domain of liability where a plaintiff does not have to prove that the defendant’s conduct was defective in order to recover. Strict liability is liability without regard to defective conduct. Defective conduct may be present, but its presence is not essential to liability. When liability in tort is strict, the basis of liability is not that the defendant’s conduct was defective. The defining characteristics of strict liability in tort are obscured when strict liability torts are recast — in a negligence mold — as conduct-based wrongs.
The term “strict liability” has multiple meanings. One meaning — the meaning relevant when we speak of strict liability torts as an overarching form of tort liability — is conceptual. Here, strict liability means liability which is not predicated on defective conduct. Two other meanings are also prominent in tort discourse. These two other meanings are normative, or moral. Some liabilities are strict because they impose liability on conduct that is blameless, morally speaking. Other liabilities are strict because they impose liability on conduct which is justified, not defective. The imposition of strict liability on morally innocent conduct is prominent in connection with autonomy rights — powers of control that the law assigns to people over their own persons and property. The imposition of strict liability on justified conduct is found in various torts that address physical harm. Here, tort law stakes out the claim that even though the conduct responsible for inflicting the harm is justifiable, the failure to repair harm justifiably inflicted is not. Neither form matches the template of a conduct-based wrong.
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