The Grounds and Extent of Legal Responsibility
85 Pages Posted: 26 Sep 2003
This article identifies and discusses the three principal limitations on the extent of legal responsibility for tortiously caused harm and explains and justifies them by reference to the principle of interactive justice, which holds one legally responsible for causing (or being imminently about to cause) harm to another's person or property as a result of conduct that is inconsistent with others' right to equal freedom.
The three principal limitations prevent liability for a tortiously caused harm when (1) the harm almost certainly would have occurred anyway in the absence of any tortious conduct or condition (the "no worse off" limitation), (2) there was a superseding cause of the harm (an actual cause of the harm that (i) intervened between the defendant's tortious conduct and the plaintiff's injury, (ii) was a necessary ("but for") cause of the plaintiff's injury, and (iii) was highly unexpected), or (3) the harm did not occur as part of the realization and playing out of one of the foreseeable risks that made the person's conduct tortious, before the hazards created by the realization of that risk had dissipated (the "risk playout" limitation).
None of the three limitations match the usual academic prescription for limiting the extent of legal responsibility for tortiously caused harm, which would rely solely on a harm-matches-the-risk ("harm-risked") limitation that is often confused with, but which differs significantly from, the risk-playout limitation. However, as this article demonstrates, the results reached by the courts are consistent with the three stated limitations rather than the harm-risked limitation, despite the longstanding efforts of the academic drafters of the Restatements to install the harm-risked limitation as the sole, comprehensive limitation on the extent of legal responsibility for tortiously caused harm.
These three limitations are neither exclusive nor absolute. Some of them do not apply or apply less broadly to some intentional torts and some strict liability actions. Moreover, there are other limitations on the extent of legal responsibility, such as the de-minimis-contribution limitation, as well as limitations on legal responsibility for certain types of losses - such as pure emotional distress, pure economic loss, and wrongful birth - that are more appropriately handled as categorical limitations on the scope of a person's duty rather than as limitations on the extent of legal responsibility for tortiously caused harm.
Keywords: extent of legal responsibility, limitations on legal responsibility, proximate cause, legal cause, remoteness, proximity, justice, interactive justice
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation