Incentivized Torts: An Empirical Analysis

69 Pages Posted: 30 Jul 2020 Last revised: 15 Mar 2021

See all articles by Shahar Dillbary

Shahar Dillbary

University of Alabama School of Law

Cherie Metcalf

Queen's University - Faculty of Law

Brock Stoddard

Appalachian State University - Department of Economics

Date Written: July 27, 2020


Courts and scholars assume that group causation theories deter wrongdoers. This Article empirically tests, and rejects, this assumption, using a series of incentivized laboratory experiments. Contrary to common belief and theory, data from over 200 subjects show that group liability can encourage tortious behavior and incentivize individuals to act with as many tortfeasors as possible. We find that subjects can be just as likely to commit a tort under a liability regime as they would be when facing no tort liability. Group liability can also incentivize a tort by making subjects perceive it as fairer to victims and society. These findings are consistent across a series of robustness checks, including both regression analyses and nonparametric tests.

We also test courts’ and scholars’ insistence that the but-for test fails in cases subject to group causation. We use a novel experimental design that allows us to test whether, and to what extent, each individual’s decision to engage in a tortious activity is influenced by the decisions of others. Upending conventional belief, we find strong evidence that the but-for test operates in group causation settings (e.g., concurrent causes). Moreover, across our experiments, subjects’ reliance on but-for causation produced the very tort that group liability attempted to discourage.

A major function of liability in torts, criminal law, and other areas of the law is to deter actors from engaging in socially undesirable activities. The same is said about doctrines that result in group liability. Our empirical results challenge this basic logic

Keywords: torts, law and economics, dilution of liability, strategy method, regression analysis, incentivized experiments, alternative liability, substantial factor, concurrent causes, but for, causation, group liability, group wrongdoing, empirical analysis

Suggested Citation

Dillbary, Shahar John and Metcalf, Cherie and Stoddard, Brock, Incentivized Torts: An Empirical Analysis (July 27, 2020). 115 Nw. U. L. Rev. 1337 (2021), U of Alabama Legal Studies Research Paper No. 3661549, Available at SSRN:

Shahar John Dillbary (Contact Author)

University of Alabama School of Law ( email )

P.O. Box 870382
Tuscaloosa, AL 35487
United States

Cherie Metcalf

Queen's University - Faculty of Law ( email )

Macdonald Hall
Kingston, Ontario K7L3N6

Brock Stoddard

Appalachian State University - Department of Economics ( email )

Boone, NC 28608
United States

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