A prominent, important strand of contemporary thinking about tort law – represented most powerfully by the work of Arthur Ripstein and Ernest Weinrib – has coalesced around the thesis that the concept of ‘private law’ is the key to the subject. In one familiar usage of the term, the thesis that tort is private law is innocuous. Tort is private law in the sense that it is concerned with relations among persons in civil society. As the banner under which a school of thought marches, ‘private law’ is a much weightier concept. It asserts that the essence of tort law is encapsulated in the traditional bipolar lawsuit. Within that formal structure, all that matters are the relations between the particular plaintiff and the particular defendant.
This book chapter argues that modern tort law is not private in the way that these theorists claim, for reasons that are both historical and normative. Modern tort took shape in response to the emergence of accidents as a social problem and its rise involved the displacement of traditional bipolar wrongs from the center of the field. Long established intentional wrongs – battery, trespass, defamation, and the like – arise out of episodic, one-off collisions between individual persons going about their lives. In an industrial, technological society, accidents are the recurring byproducts of organized and fundamental social activities. Modern fault liability emerges as the center of modern tort law in response to this social transformation. When this happens, accidents become the focal point of tort law and fault is sharply divorced from moral notions of personal responsibility and blameworthiness. To be sure, negligent wrongs remain genuine wrongs. The fault standard is an attempt to articulate what a right to the physical integrity of one’s person requires in the way of care owed by others. Failures to exercise reasonable care are wrongs when they result in harm to persons who can claim the right to such care. But they are also wrongs that may be blamelessly committed. Negligence is wrongful conduct, not culpable mens rea. We require reasonable care not because failing to be reasonably careful is always and everywhere egregiously blameworthy, but because even blameless and slight negligence can inflict severe harm.
Champions of tort as private law implicitly recast tort in a pre-modern form, thereby obscuring fundamental and significant features of our law. Modern tort law responds to a pressing social problem and protects persons’ fundamental interest in physical integrity. It is a part of basic justice concerned with interactions that cannot be avoided in the course of normal modern lives – not a law which addresses random and voluntary individual interactions. And almost since its inception, modern tort law has been only one of a family of institutions that address organized, systematic, risk. Direct regulation of risk and administrative schemes are two others. This family of institutions is not sundered by a radical separation of the private law of torts from the public law of regulation. Tort law, direct regulation of risk, and administrative schemes are complementary and competitive alternatives to one another, responding to overlapping problems and articulating related values.
Keating, Gregory C, Is Tort Law ‘Private’? (August 16, 2019). Forthcoming in Oberdiek, J and Miller, P (eds), Civil Wrongs and Justice in Private Law (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019); USC CLASS Research Paper No CLASS19-25; USC Law Legal Studies Paper No 19-25.