Misunderstanding Ability, Misallocating Liability

52 Pages Posted: 20 Jan 2005


In the Anglo-American legal tradition, people are responsible for damage caused by their failure to conform their conduct with that of the "reasonable person." With few exceptions, so long as one's conduct conforms to that of the reasonable person, then even if the conduct harms others, it does not create liability. Courts understand that the "reasonable person" is an idealized legal fiction but believe the construct to be a useful way to identify culpable conduct. For the reasonable-person test to be useful, courts must identify the characteristics of this reasonable person. As to cognitive and perceptual abilities, courts endow this hypothetical reasonable person with what they believe are "ordinary" skills and abilities. Recent cognitive psychological research, however, indicates that intuitions about ordinary skills and abilities vastly overstate the cognitive skills people actually possess. Consequently, reliance on intuition and folk wisdom about ordinary abilities leads courts to overattribute accidents to negligent carelessness, rather than unavoidable misfortune.

JEL Classification: K1

Suggested Citation

Rachlinski, Jeffrey John, Misunderstanding Ability, Misallocating Liability. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=389700

Jeffrey John Rachlinski (Contact Author)

Cornell Law School ( email )

Myron Taylor Hall
Cornell University
Ithaca, NY 14853-4901
United States
607-255-5878 (Phone)
607-255-7193 (Fax)

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