Should Liability Be Based on the Harm to the Victim or the Gain to the Injurer?

Posted: 4 May 2000

See all articles by A. Mitchell Polinsky

A. Mitchell Polinsky

Stanford Law School; National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

Steven Shavell

Harvard Law School; National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

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Abstract

Should the level of liability imposed on an injurer be based on the harm he caused or instead on the gain he obtained from engaging in the harmful act? There is a strong reason to favor liability based on harm rather than gain when account is taken of the possibility of legal error. Notably, even a small underestimate of gain can lead an injurer to commit a harmful act when the harm greatly exceeds his gain, resulting in a large social loss. In contrast, a comparable error in the estimate of harm will not lead an injurer to engage in the harmful act when the harm significantly exceeds his gain. The general superiority of harm-based liability holds under the rules of negligence an strict liability and regardless of whether potential injurers know the error that will be made.

JEL Classification: K14, K41

Suggested Citation

Polinsky, A. Mitchell and Shavell, Steven, Should Liability Be Based on the Harm to the Victim or the Gain to the Injurer?. JOURNAL OF LAW, ECONOMICS, AND ORGANIZATION, Vol 10 No 2, 1994. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=5411

A. Mitchell Polinsky (Contact Author)

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Steven Shavell

Harvard Law School ( email )

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