Compensation for Mere Exposure to Risk

Australian Journal of Legal Philosophy 29:89-101 (2004)
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It could be argued that tort law is failing, and arguably an example of this failure is the recent public liability and insurance (‘PL&I’) crisis. A number of solutions have been proposed, but ultimately the chosen solution should address whatever we take to be the cause of this failure. On one account, the PL&I crisis is a result of an unwarranted expansion of the scope of tort law. Proponents of this position sometimes argue that the duty of care owed by defendants to plaintiffs has expanded beyond reasonable levels, such that parties who were not really responsible for another’s misfortune are successfully sued, while those who really were to blame get away without taking any responsibility. However people should take responsibility for their actions, and the only likely consequence of allowing them to shirk it is that they and others will be less likely to exercise due care in the future, since the deterrents of liability and of no compensation for accidentally self-imposed losses will not be there. Others also argue that this expansion is not warranted because it is inappropriately fueled by ‘deep pocket’ considerations rather than by considerations of fault. They argue that the presence of liability insurance sways the judiciary to award damages against defendants since they know that insurers, and not the defendant personally, will pay for it in the end anyway. But although it may seem that no real person has to bear these burdens when they are imposed onto insurers, in reality all of society bears them collectively when insurers are forced to hike their premiums to cover these increasing damages payments. In any case, it seems unfair to force insurers to cover these costs simply because they can afford to do so. If such an expansion is indeed the cause of the PL&I crisis, then a contraction of the scope of tort liability, and a pious return to the fault principle, might remedy the situation. However it could also be argued that inadequate deterrence is the cause of this crisis. On this account the problem would lie not with the tort system’s continued unwarranted expansion, but in the fact that defendants really have been too careless. If prospective injurers were appropriately deterred from engaging in unnecessarily risky activities, then fewer accidents would ever occur in the first place, and this would reduce the need for litigation at its very source. If we take this to be the cause of tort law’s failure then our solution should aim to improve deterrence. Glen Robinson has argued that improved deterrence could be achieved if plaintiffs were allowed to sue defendants for wrongful exposure to ongoing risks of future harm, even in the absence of currently materialized losses. He argues that at least in toxic injury type cases the tortious creation of risk [should be seen as] an appropriate basis of liability, with damages being assessed according to the value of the risk, as an alternative to forcing risk victims to abide the outcome of the event and seek damages only if and when harm materializes. In a sense, Robinson wishes to treat newly-acquired wrongful risks as de-facto wrongful losses, and these are what would be compensated in liability for risk creation (‘LFRC’) cases. Robinson argues that if the extent of damages were fixed to the extent of risk exposure, all detected unreasonable risk creators would be forced to bear the costs of their activities, rather than only those who could be found responsible for another’s injuries ‘on the balance of probabilities’. The incidence of accidents should decrease as a result of improved deterrence, reduce the ‘suing fest’, and so resolve the PL&I crisis. So whilst the first solution involves contracting the scope of tort liability, Robinson’s solution involves an expansion of its scope. However Robinson acknowledges that LFRC seems prima facie incompatible with current tort principles which in the least require the presence of plaintiff losses, defendant fault, and causation to be established before making defendants liable for plaintiffs’ compensation. Since losses would be absent in LFRC cases by definition, the first evidentiary requirement would always be frustrated, and in its absence proof of defendant fault and causation would also seem scant. If such an expansion of tort liability were not supported by current tort principles then it would be no better than proposals to switch accident law across to no-fault, since both solutions would require comprehensive legal reform. However Robinson argues that the above three evidentiary requirements could be met in LFRC cases to the same extent that they are met in other currently accepted cases, and hence that his solution would therefore be preferable to no-fault solutions as it would only require incremental but not comprehensive legal reform. Although I believe that actual losses should be present before allowing plaintiffs to seek compensation, I will not present a positive argument for this conclusion. My aim in this paper is not to debate the relative merits of Robinson’s solution as compared to no-fault solutions, nor to determine which account of the cause of the PL&I crisis is closer to the truth, but rather to find out whether Robinson’s solution would indeed require less radical legal reform than, for example, proposed no-fault solutions. I will argue that Robinson fails to show that current tort principles would support his proposed solution, and hence that his solution is at best on an even footing with no-fault solutions since both would require comprehensive legal reform.

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Nicole A. Vincent
University of Technology Sydney


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