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Vincent as a Negligence Case: A Justificational Analysis

40 Pages Posted: 21 May 2007  

Peter M. M. Gerhart

Case Western Reserve University School of Law

Date Written: May 2007


In a recent symposium, Professor Sugarman asks whether any account of Vincent v. Lake Erie Steamship Company provides a justification for the outcome that avoids doctrinal, conceptual question-begging or unexplained inconsistencies within tort doctrine. This Article takes that challenge seriously by providing a justification for the decision that specifies the source of the defendant's obligation to compensate the plaintiff.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the outcome in Vincent v. Lake Erie Steamship Company is based on fault, not strict liability. Although the decision to stay at the dock was socially appropriate, the ship owner acted unreasonably by making that decision without simultaneously agreeing (implicitly) to compensate the dock owner for the damage. Negligence law says that an actor must pay for the cost of reasonable precautions, and the damage to the dock was the precaution that was needed to save the ship. Negligence law internalizes that cost for the same reason that negligence law internalizes the cost of harm when an actor has not invested in reasonable precautions - to make sure that the actor making the decisions matches social costs and benefits. In the normal negligence case, the defendant is required to internalize the cost of excessive harm so that the actor appropriately balances her interest in avoiding the time and effort of precautions against potential harm to others. In Vincent the cost is internalized so that the actor who avoids the harm appropriately balances the harm to others against the cost savings to herself. In both instances, the internalization conserves judicial resources by allowing private decision-making to maximize social value with a minimum of judicial intervention.

By integrating our understanding of Vincent into the law of fault and by using the tools of both law and economics and corrective justice to do so, this Article demonstrates how justificational analysis can deepen our understanding of the law.

Keywords: Vincent v. Lake Erie Steamship, torts, negligence, fault, reasonable person, justificatory analysis, decision-making, strict liability

JEL Classification: K10, K13

Suggested Citation

Gerhart, Peter M. mname, Vincent as a Negligence Case: A Justificational Analysis (May 2007). Case Legal Studies Research Paper No. 07-18. Available at SSRN: or

Peter M. Gerhart (Contact Author)

Case Western Reserve University School of Law ( email )

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