Defining The Known Risk: Context-Sensitivity In Tort Law Defenses
12 J. Tort L. 9 (2019)
23 Pages Posted: 25 Jun 2019 Last revised: 26 Jun 2019
Date Written: January 1, 2019
The law of negligence is designed to apply uniformly across contexts. Whether dealing with a car accident, medical malpractice, or a slip-and-fall case, tort law consistently asks whether a defendant owed a duty of care to the plaintiff and whether he exercised reasonable care in fulfilling that duty. Tort law defenses, too, are generally understood to be context-neutral. The doctrines of comparative negligence and assumption of risk should not vary depending on the precise circumstances surrounding an injury.
And yet, there is a peculiar inconsistency in how some defenses are applied in cases of medical malpractice as compared to cases outside the health care context. Specifically, reliance on secondary implied assumption of risk seems to require greater knowledge on the part of the plaintiff in malpractice cases than in other contexts. In recreational sport cases, for example, a plaintiff will be denied recovery if he voluntarily encountered a known risk of physical injury – regardless of whether he understood that the risk was the result of a defendant’s negligence. In contrast, in medical malpractice cases, most people’s intuition is that the plaintiff’s recovery should be denied or limited only if he had knowledge of the risk of physical injury as well as the fact that this risk was created by a negligent defendant. There is no clear doctrinal explanation for this distinction.
This article describes this conundrum and poses the question of whether and when such context-specific adjustments might be doctrinally justified. Ultimately, the most likely explanation is grounded in medical exceptionalist claims that the unique nature of health care justifies a more flexible and nuanced application of legal doctrine. While this conclusion may be unsatisfying to some, it presents a valuable opportunity to revisit debates about the supposed context-neutrality of tort law.
Keywords: tort, malpractice, assumption of risk, waiver
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