Tort Law and Civil Recourse
Mark A. Geistfeld, Tort Law and Civil Recourse, 119 Mich. L. Rev. Forthcoming 2021
31 Pages Posted: 16 Nov 2020
Date Written: November 13, 2020
In Recognizing Wrongs (Harvard U. Press 2020), Professors John Goldberg and Benjamin Zipursky defend their long-standing thesis that the primary purpose of tort law is to implement the principle of civil recourse, which “can be summarized as follows: A person who is the victim of a legal wrong is entitled to an avenue of civil recourse against one who wrongs her” (p. 3). To provide an adequate account of tort law, the principle of civil recourse cannot simply describe the formal structure of tort liability; it must also explain the substantive nature of wrongdoing. Most of the book strives to provide such an account, successfully tying the principle of civil recourse to a particular conception of tort law wholly defined by conduct-based duties of noninjury, the breach of which necessarily involves prohibited behavior that mistreated the plaintiff. Goldberg and Zipursky accordingly conclude that “the point of tort law is to define and prohibit certain forms of mistreatment, and to provide victims of such mistreatment with the ability to use civil litigation to obtain redress from those who have mistreated them” (p. 266).
The argument turns on mistreatment and the associated prohibition of injury-causing behavior, each of which is defined in problematic terms. Many tort rules function as forms of no-fault or strict liability, even when not expressly denominated as such. According to Goldberg and Zipursky, these rules are defined by an “unforgiving” behavioral standard not to cause injury that can be violated by even “conscientious and diligent actions” (p. 193). In addition to begging the question of why this behavior meaningfully mistreats the plaintiff, Goldberg and Zipursky do not address the implications of such a rule. On their account, the violation of any tort duty is prohibited. Insofar as one ought to avoid acting in a legally prohibited manner, dutyholders who cannot comply with an “unforgiving” behavioral obligation should avoid engaging in the risky activity altogether—an extreme obligation that would prevent most of us from driving automobiles. Something about this argument has gone awry.
As this Review shows, civil recourse readily accommodates an alternative interpretation of tort law that substantially limits the relevance of mistreatment, which in turn limits the importance of civil recourse to the remedial aspects of modern tort law. Although undoubtedly important, the redressive structure of tort liability does not supply the “point of tort law.” Goldberg and Zipursky depict tort law in a manner that is faithful to its historical origins but is now anachronistic. The role of mistreatment within the early common law stemmed from the customary norms that governed behavior in the state of nature. Lacking protection of a centralized government, individuals needed to defend their honor in order to ward off future attacks. Even in cases of accidental harm, suffering injury at the hands of another necessarily involved a form of mistreatment—a loss of honor—that entitled the victim to obtain compensation from the injurer, a form of interpersonal redress for mistreatment that functioned as a rule of strict liability. By enforcing these norms, the early common law was fully animated by the principle of civil recourse.
Over time, social conditions have changed. Physical security no longer depends on one’s honor. To protect individuals from physical harm, modern tort law focuses on the prevention and compensation of injury. Mistreatment matters only insofar as it involves highly culpable wrongdoing—a distinctive threat to physical security redressed by punitive damages. Outside of this extraordinary remedy, mistreatment does not substantively shape the tort rules governing accidental physical harms. Tort liability still satisfies the principle of civil recourse—plaintiffs receive redress from defendants who have violated their tort rights and thereby wronged them—but the primary purpose of modern tort law is defined by its substantive rights and correlative obligations, not by the remedial structure of civil recourse.
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