What Tort Law Is

Gregory C. Keating, Is Tort Law “Private”?, in Civil Wrongs and Justice in Private Law (Paul B. Miller & John Oberdiek, eds.) (forthcoming Oxford University Press), available at SSRN.

Tort law is no stranger to controversy. What duty does an employer owe to children sickened by workplace carcinogens brought home on parents’ clothing? What damages appropriately punish actors for willful and malicious conduct, or for non-economic harm? How far should liability extend when actors make dangerous products available to others who, in turn, choose to use or abuse them? But all of these freighted disputes pale in comparison to the larger question—what is tort law, or perhaps, what is tort law for? Although the questions seem intractable, Greg Keating’s recent article, Is Tort Law “Private”?, methodically guides readers through the theoretical claims.

The dividing lines have been staked out for some time. The instrumentalist camp sees tort law as one of many means for achieving optimal deterrence. Meanwhile a “contemporary revival” of traditional views sees tort as private law. Professor Keating wastes no time dismantling both assessments. Private law theorists miss the extent to which “modern tort law emerged as a response to the law having accidental injury thrust upon it as a pressing problem.” (P. 2.) Moreover, tort law’s “core domain is not optional,” but instead “protects persons against various forms of impairment and interference by others as they go about their lives as members of civil society.” (Id.) Continue reading "What Tort Law Is"

Erie and Unfair Competition’s Long and Winding Road

In her excellent addition to the Akron Law Review’s intellectual property volume, The Erie/Sears/Compco Squeeze: Erie’s Effects on Unfair Competition and Trade Secret Law, Sharon Sandeen “tells the story of the efforts undertaken in the aftermath of Erie to fill the gaps it left in the law of unfair competition.” Sandeen is particularly interested in the effect of Erie on what I would describe as the non-trademark-related areas of unfair competition, and especially the failed efforts to broaden the Lanham Act to cover trade secrets or otherwise develop general federal unfair competition legislation.

The tale goes like this: Prior to the Supreme Court’s decision in Erie, federal courts developed a robust common law of unfair competition. Sandeen describes that law as general federal common law, though it is only through the lens of Erie that the “federal” part of that formulation stands out. Federal courts developing unfair competition law before Erie didn’t think they were developing a different law than were state courts, and as Sandeen illustrates, federal courts were considerably more active in this area than state courts. Those federal courts thought they were developing the law of unfair competition. Erie created substantial uncertainty by throwing the status of that body of law into doubt and threatening disuniformity as states developed their own bodies of unfair competition law. Disuniformity was a significant concern, particularly to large commercial entities doing business nationally. Reformers made a variety of efforts to solve that problem with federal unfair competition legislation, and as Sandeen describes in detail, they largely failed. The reasons for that failure shed some interesting light on the coherence of the category of unfair competition—a category that has evolved considerably over time. Continue reading "Erie and Unfair Competition’s Long and Winding Road"

Towards Universal Coverage? Reflections on the Promise and Pitfalls of a Public Option (Test)

Democratic voters in America are currently witnessing a contest between three broad visions of the role of the federal government. One vision is “democratic socialist” in nature and argues for governments to be the exclusive provider of a range of “core goods”—goods central to a life of full human dignity. This is a common theme of democratic socialist proposals on healthcare, for example. Another vision is market-based: markets should continue to play a leading role and the role of government should be limited to supporting or at times subsidizing access to core goods by low-income earners. A third position is “democratic liberal” in character (or what Jospeh Stiglitz has called “progressive capitalist”). It argues that governments should guarantee universal access to core goods, but not necessarily through exclusive public provision. Instead, it suggests that governments should seek to achieve universal access to core goods in one of two ways: either through an appropriate mix of sticks and carrots for private providers (taxes and subsidies), or a mix of public and private provision.

Enter the idea of the “public option” outlined by Ganesh Sitaraman and Anne Alstott in The Public Option: they argue that the government should provide either a “competitive” or “baseline” public option for citizens wanting to access core goods such as healthcare, housing, education, or childcare. To this list, they also add services such as banking, retirement savings, credit reporting, public defense, and guaranteed employment.

We have written elsewhere about how and why we support a democratic liberal approach over both a more full-blown democratic socialist or free-market approach to the provision of core goods. In short, we think it provides the best mix of dignity, freedom, and equality for all citizens and is the most realistic way of achieving universal access to a decent social minimum—by harnessing the strengths of both the state and markets.

In key respects, Sitaraman and Alstott are also democratic liberal in their approach (they are certainly progressive capitalists): they emphasize the role of both government and private markets in providing access to core goods and services. As they note, they do not “have blind faith in private public administration” or “private firms.” (P. 126.) Instead, they suggest that we must ask “which is the best form of administration given a particular context, history, and the nature of the task at hand.” (P. 126.) Continue reading "Towards Universal Coverage? Reflections on the Promise and Pitfalls of a Public Option (Test)"

Incapacity Push-Back

Sean M. Scott, Contractual Incapacity and the Americans with Disabilities Act, 123 Dickinson L. Rev. __ (forthcoming 2019), available at SSRN.

What happens when a set of longstanding common law assumptions meets an assertive and vigorous civil rights act? Professor Sean Scott examines this question in terms of contractual incapacity and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in her aptly titled Contractual Incapacity and the Americans with Disabilities Act. She confronts the standard application of the doctrine of contractual incapacity in view of the ADA’s wide-ranging aim of upsetting traditional notions of disability and impairment.

To combine these two antagonistic ideas—contractual incapacity and the ADA—Professor Scott first outlines the texts and ambitions of each. Next, she introduces these two unwilling dance partners to one another and demonstrates that particular aspects of the idea of contractual incapacity do in fact undermine both the ADA and the goals of the disability rights movement. She concludes with nudging. She gives the law a small push, suggesting that our legal imaginations might reconsider contractual incapacity against the demands of disability rights activists. It’s a powerful nudge, one which has implications for various populations, from developmentally disabled persons to elderly individuals with dementia. Continue reading "Incapacity Push-Back"

‘The Law of Good People’ and Corporate Law

Yuval Feldman’s book, The Law of Good People: Challenging States’ Ability to Regulate Human Behavior provides a thought-provoking framework to advance our understanding of how governments should deal with misconduct committed by normative citizens blinded by cognitive biases regarding their own ethicality. While it does not discuss corporate law, this novel framework can offer new insights on fundamental questions of corporate law, securities regulation, and corporate misconduct.

The dominant enforcement paradigm is based on the idea that governments deal with “bad people”—those pursuing their own self-interest—by setting prices or sanctions for misconduct. Feldman, however, draws on the neglected discipline of behavioral ethics to argue that many forms of “ordinary unethicality”—such as workplace discrimination, insurance fraud or tax evasion—are committed by “good people” blinded by self-serving processes such as self-deception, motivated reasoning, ethical dissonance, and moral disengagement. Feldman convincingly shows that the existing analysis of law enforcement misses an important category of good people who may violate legal norms without feeling immoral or thinking that they are indeed in violation of law. Continue reading "‘The Law of Good People’ and Corporate Law"

Rectifying “Mistaken” Applications of the Mistake Doctrine to Personal Injury Releases

When one enters into a contractual agreement with another, expectations are created on both sides. Party A expects to receive something from Party B, and Party B expects to receive something in return from Party A. When courts become involved in contractual disputes, ensuring the fulfillment of these expectations is often one of their primary goals. The pursuit of this goal, however, must be balanced against other contracts principles, particularly those related to defenses against the enforceability of contracts. Professor Grace Giesel explores the balance between expectations and enforceability in her recent thought-provoking article, A New Look at Contract Mistake Doctrine and Personal Injury Releases.

Professor Giesel’s article begins with an informative discussion about the terms typically included in a personal injury release agreement. In particular, she notes that such agreements often require the injured party to relinquish “claims for all injuries relating to the incident whether those injuries are known or unknown” (P. 542) and whether those injuries have presently developed or will develop in the future. When those unknown injuries manifest themselves after the execution and payment of the release agreement, parties seek to invoke the mistake doctrine to challenge the enforceability of the agreement in their efforts to recover for additional related injuries. As Professor Giesel argues, injured parties will have a steep uphill battle to successfully make a case for mutual or unilateral mistake under such circumstances. Continue reading "Rectifying “Mistaken” Applications of the Mistake Doctrine to Personal Injury Releases"

An Anti-Democratic Mix of Secrecy, Unaccountability, Technology, and Surveillance

Andrea Roth, “Spit and Acquit”: Prosecutors as Surveillance Entrepreneurs, 107 Cal. L. Rev. 405 (2019).

If you were asked to design a DNA database to help solve crimes in a democratic society, what features would you include?  Legislative debate about the desirability of such a database would be a start. Whether such a DNA database would be justified by a cost-benefit analysis, with all potentially affected constituents having had a voice in the process might be another consideration. Appropriations for this hypothetical database might be conditioned on regulations intended to safeguard against abuse, to protect civil liberties, and to avoid scientific errors. And the mass collection of DNA presumably would not continue without clear evidence of its public safety benefits.

The District Attorney in Orange County, California has maintained its own DNA database since 2007. And it exhibits none of these features, as Andrea Roth’s article demonstrates. While there has been some journalistic and scholarly attention to the Orange County District Attorney’s (OCDA) database, Professor Roth’s work is the first to rely upon original field research, including court observations, public records disclosures, and interviews with all kinds of people familiar with the program, including affected defendants. The piece is remarkable and fascinating, both in its particulars, and what it can tell us about the dangers of other programs that may bear resemblances to it. Continue reading "An Anti-Democratic Mix of Secrecy, Unaccountability, Technology, and Surveillance"

The Uses and Abuses of the Government’s Tools of Information Control

Nathan Cortez, Information Mischief Under the Trump Administration, 94 Chi.-Kent L. Rev. 315 (2019).

The government enjoys enormous capacities to collect, publish, and disseminate a vast array of data. In a healthy democracy, we hope and expect that the government will share that information to inform, encourage, and inspire the public’s debate and dialogue. Indeed, as Jack Balkin suggests, democratic states should aspire to be “information gourmets, information philanthropists, and information decentralizers.” Too often, however, the government instead skews or stifles the public’s discourse by manipulating data or by denying access to it.

Nathan Cortez adds to our understanding of these dangers by describing the government’s instruments of information control—what he calls “information mischief”—along with their uses and abuses. More specifically, Cortez identifies these tools to include stripping certain online data, terms, and topics from the public domain; abandoning data collection in key areas; censoring scientists and other data experts employed by the government; and invoking transparency as a pretext for declining to cite and rely on sound science (Cortez describes this as “weaponizing transparency”). Continue reading "The Uses and Abuses of the Government’s Tools of Information Control"

Plausible Crime Stories: The Legal History of Sex Offences in Mandate Palestine

As a procedural field, evidence law is often portrayed as technical and even arbitrary; the handmaid of substantive law. Orna Alyagon-Darr’s new book, Plausible Crime Stories: The Legal History of Sex Offences in Mandate Palestine, dispels this notion, highlighting the ways in which evidence law—and procedure more generally—provides a reflection of the societies in which they operate, and may therefore serve as a rich source of social history. Precisely because procedural law is often depicted as morally and culturally neutral, it offers inadvertent clues to the thought process of various legal actors which substantive legal fields do not.1 In this book Alyagon-Darr, the author of Marks of an Absolute Witch (a study of witchcraft trials in sixteenth to eighteenth century England, the rules of evidence that governed them, and the social context these rules convey), turns her keen eye for fascinating and unusual details to another period and place: the interwar Middle East.

Plausible Crime Stories offers a fascinating analysis of the colonial archive of sex offenses in the Middle East during the interwar period. Based on 147 cases decided in the Haifa District between the years 1933-1948, Alyagon-Darr recounts the social and political histories of sex crimes in Mandate Palestine. To provide a richer and broader context, Alyagon-Darr also skillfully employs media coverage, in English, Arabic and Hebrew, to tease out public opinion towards such criminality within each of Palestine’s communities. Continue reading "Plausible Crime Stories: The Legal History of Sex Offences in Mandate Palestine"

Lessons from Literal Crashes for Code

Bryan H. Choi, Crashworthy Code, 94 Wash. L. Rev. 39 (2019).

Software crashes all the time, and the law does little about it. But as Bryan H. Choi notes in Crashworthy Code, “anticipation has been building that the rules for cyber-physical liability will be different.” (P. 43.) It is one thing for your laptop to eat the latest version of your article, and another for your self-driving lawn mower to run over your foot. The former might not trigger losses of the kind tort law cares about, but the latter seems pretty indistinguishable from physical accidents of yore. Whatever one may think of CDA 230 now, the bargain struck in this country to protect innovation and expression on the internet is by no means the right one for addressing physical harms. Robots may be special, but so are people’s limbs.

In this article, Choi joins the fray of scholars debating what comes next for tort law in the age of embodied software: robots, the internet of things, and self-driving cars. Meticulously researched, legally sharp, and truly interdisciplinary, Crashworthy Code offers a thoughtful way out of the impasse tort law currently faces. While arguing that software is exceptional not in the harms that it causes but in the way that it crashes, Choi refuses to revert to the tropes of libertarianism or protectionism. We can have risk mitigation without killing off innovation, he argues. Tort, it turns out, has done this sort of thing before. Continue reading "Lessons from Literal Crashes for Code"

Dissolving Bonds

Orly Lobel, Gentlemen Prefer Bonds: How Employers Fix the Talent Market, Santa Clara L. Rev. __ (forthcoming, 2019), available at SSRN.

Professor Lobel begins by analyzing the various mechanisms by which employers diminish their workers’ options—and thus limit worker bargaining power for better compensation and benefits—by circumscribing their post-employment freedom of action. Of course, formal noncompetes are old news (even as a number of jurisdictions are taking steps to rein them in), and the use of horizontal wage-fixing and no-poaching agreements has gotten the renewed attention of the antitrust folk. But Lobel reminds us that employers can be incredibly creative in attempting to limit the mobility of their workers. Thus, she identifies restraints in the franchise setting and among sports and other associations. For example, class actions are pending against a range of fast food franchises whose agreements bar one franchisee from hiring another’s employees. She also stresses that customer nonsolicitation clauses can often be as effective as formal noncompetes since it may well be impossible to compete in a given geographic area without soliciting your former employer’s customers. Similarly, nondisclosure agreements are often drafted to protect far more information than trade secret law would reach, and “holdover” clauses— giving an employer the right to a former employee’s inventions made after the employment has terminated—reduce the value of creative workers to prospective new employers.

The effect of these and other “mobility penalties” is to decrease employee options, which not only restrains workers from taking higher paid jobs with competitors but thereby also reduces their bargaining power with their current employer. Needless to say, reducing competition among employers tends to depress compensation. On a macro level, Professor Lobel argues that these kinds of competition-dampening mechanisms may be partly to blame for the failure of wages to keep up with improving economic conditions and thus contribute to growing income inequality. Even more interestingly, she explores the effects of such employer tactics to lower wages on certain groups, most saliently the perpetuation of the gender gap in compensation. For a variety of reasons (“the need to coordinate dual careers, family geographic ties, and job market re-entry after family leave” (P. 18)),women are less mobile than men. That means that artificial restraints are likely to have disproportionately adverse effects on them since an already limited range of choices is further narrowed, perhaps to zero. Similar points can be made about older workers and minorities. While wages tend to be depressed for all workers by agreements that limit their ability to vote with their feet, some groups are more likely than others to suffer worse consequences. Continue reading "Dissolving Bonds"