Omissive Overdetermination: Why the Act-Omission Distinction Makes a Difference for Causal Analysis

University of Western Australia Law Review 1 (49):57-86 (2022)
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Abstract

Analyses of factual causation face perennial problems, including preemption, overdetermination, and omissions. Arguably, the thorniest, are cases of omissive overdetermination, involving two independent omissions, each sufficient for the harm, and neither, independently, making a difference. A famous example is Saunders, where pedestrian was hit by a driver of a rental car who never pressed on the (unbeknownst to the driver) defective (and, negligently, never inspected) brakes. Causal intuitions in such cases are messy, reflected in disagreement about which omission mattered. What these analyses mistakenly take for granted, is that at issue is the 'efficacy' of each omission. I argue, on the contrary, the puzzle of omissive overdetermination favors taking the act/omission distinction seriously. Factual causation, properly understood precludes omissions (i.e. omissions are not causal). Of course, the law also attaches liability to omissions, but this works differently from liability for real causes (e.g. omissions have a duty requirement, they also respond differentially to difference-making considerations). The manner in which liability attaches for omissions differs from that of straightforward causal liability, and is entirely dependent on the underlying causal structure. Attention to that structure (e.g. that the driver's hitting the pedestrian with his car is what actually caused the injury) sheds light on which omissions matter (e.g. driver's failure to press on the brakes) and why (because that failure removes a defense the driver would have to liability for the accident he caused). Other cases, where the parties' connection is entirely omissive (e.g. two physicians fail to detect independently lethal conditions), come out differently (tracking moralized elements). The analysis offered makes better sense of both why omissive determination cases are puzzling and how to resolve them.

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Yuval Abrams
New York University

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