Strict Liability and the Liberal Justice Theory of Torts


Ask a group of tort scholars to explain the relationship between fault and strict liability and the responses are likely to be sharply split. An economist might reply that strict liability—assigned on the basis of efficiency—should be the rule and fault, if it is to apply at all, but a reluctant and occasional exception. A moralist, however, would likely give the opposite opinion—that fault, defined as deontological culpability, should be the rule and strict liability the exception.

Ironically, both economists and moralists often base their views on liberal principles. Economists rely on the political dimension of liberalism, arguing that government generally should not intervene in free market transactions, but if it must, it should do so only with clear tort rules that minimize accident costs. Not surprisingly, moralists rely on the moral dimension of liberalism, contending that tort law should promote private rights and freedoms by creating and enforcing personal responsibilities.

Both views, however, share the same three flaws. Methodologically, they are one-dimensional in outlook (focusing on either the moral or the political, but not both) and unilateral in objective (seeking to either punish or deter injurers while virtually ignoring the injured). Substantively, they are strangely illiberal (promoting either social welfare or some particular conception of the Good).

In this article, I offer a liberal justice tort theory that avoids these pitfalls. It is holistic, encompassing both sides of tort law’s dual personality; relational, invoking justice concepts that illuminate the bilateral aspects of all torts; and classic, adopting a longstanding and mainstream perspective that seeks only to protect and promote individual liberty. After recapturing and redefining strict liability, I demonstrate how that ancient concept can lay the groundwork for a new metatheory of torts.

My thesis, in short, is that strict liability is both a moral-political and a substantive-procedural concept that must be implemented in a two-step process. The first step determines whether the parties’ encounter and its effects were consensual. If consent exists, the consenter is held strictly liable for her own loss, irrespective of the fault of her counterpart. If no consent is found, or if it is not an issue, liberal justice theory then implements a scheme of reasonableness, grounded in concepts of strict law and equity, to determine the actor’s liability. Strict law creates substantive rules that forbid, inhibit or sanction certain people, activities or relations that pose the greatest and surest threats to freedom and equality. However, even when a person, activity or relationship is not covered by a strict substantive rule, equity may episodically impose strict procedural requirements on actors who hold an unfair advantage in the trial of their actions. Because litigation itself is a threat to the freedom of the loser, the ad hoc adjustment of procedural burdens serves to correct an important imbalance between the parties and restores them to a state of moral and political equality.


Jurisprudence | Public Law and Legal Theory | Torts

Date of this Version

August 2006