Courts have long said that legal claims are a constitutionally protected form of property. But what does that mean? This essay explores the treatment of legal claims as property rights in the context of mass torts in doctrinal, theoretical, and economic terms. Corrective justice and civil recourse conceptions of tort law dictate that tort claims are owned by individual plaintiffs. Allocating these property rights at the individual scale can make it difficult to use public mechanisms, like class actions, to aggregate mass tort plaintiffs’ claims to achieve tort law’s instrumental goals like deterrence horizontal equity. At the same time property rights in tort claims facilitate aggregation and mass settlement through private ordering that often sweeps away individualized distinctions among plaintiffs. While the private aggregate settlements that emerge may sometimes further tort law’s instrumental goals, they do so fortuitously, as a byproduct of intermediaries seeking private gain from bundling claims together for sale to the defendant en masse, and without the transparency or oversight of public alternatives.
Rave, D Theodore, Tort Claims As Property Rights (May 26, 2020). DePaul Law Review, volume 69, no 2, 2020.