This article explores different dimensions of the concept of negligence in the law. The first sections focus on the fundamental distinction between conduct negligence, a conception that dominates tort law; and cognitive negligence, a conception that is much more important in criminal law. The last major section identifies five significant institutional functions served by a legal negligence standard: expressing a legal norm in the form of a standard rather than a rule; personifying fault; empowering the trier of fact to give (...) content to the standard; creating a secondary legal norm parasitic on a primary legal norm; and distinguishing grades of fault. These functions reveal the distinctive significance of negligence, but also disclose numerous problems that the use of such a legal standard can pose. Careful analysis of these different dimensions of negligence clarifies certain misconceptions and has important implications. For example, the question whether "negligence" is an appropriate minimum standard of liability is unanswerable until we identify the type of negligence at issue and its role in norm-definition. Similarly, comparing negligenceto supposedly "more serious" forms of fault, such as recklessness, knowledge, and purpose, is treacherous and sometimes amounts to comparing apples and oranges. A better understanding of the different conceptions of negligence and of the distinctive institutional functions of a legal negligence standard can facilitate the development of more coherent, and more justifiable, fault criteria in criminal law, torts, and other legal domains. (shrink)
Negligence is both an important concept and an ambiguous one. Here I concentrate upon the sense of creating an unjustifiable, low-probability risk of future harm. This essay attempts to dispel theprevalent view that only a maximizing, utilitarian approach can render intelligible certain features of negligence analysis—its focus on the marginal advantages and disadvantages of the actor's taking a specific precaution, its consideration and balancing of the short-term effects of different actions, and its sensitivity to a multiplicity of factors. Perhaps certain (...) absolutist deontological perspectives are inconsistent with these features; but other deontological perspectives can easily accommodate them. Careful examination of the concept of negligence helps resolve an important debate about the nature of tort law, supporting the view that fault, rather than corrective justice, is the better interpretation and justification of Anglo-American tort doctrine. (shrink)
Faced with the choice between creating a risk of harm and taking a precaution against that risk, should I take the precaution? Does the proper analysis of this trade-off require a maximizing, utilitarian approach? If not, how does one properly analyze the trade-off? These questions are important, for we often are uncertain about the effects of our actions. Accordingly, we often must consider whether our actions create an unreasonable risk of injury — that is, whether our actions are negligent.
The responsible corporate officer doctrine is, as a formal matter, an instance of strict criminal liability: the government need not prove the defendant’s mens rea in order to obtain a conviction, and the defendant may not escape conviction by proving lack of mens rea. Formal strict liability is sometimes consistent with retributive principles, especially when the strict liability pertains to the grading of an offense. But is strict liability consistent with retributive principles when it pertains, not to grading, but to (...) whether the defendant has crossed the threshold from noncriminal to criminal conduct? In this essay, I review the two most plausible arguments supporting an affirmative answer in the context of the RCO doctrine. First, perhaps this doctrine reflects a rule-like form of negligence, akin to a rule that prohibits selling alcohol to a minor. Second, perhaps this doctrine expresses a duty to use extraordinary care to prevent a harm. Neither argument is persuasive. The first argument, although valid in some circumstances, fails to explain and justify the RCO doctrine. The second argument, a duty to use extraordinary care, is also inadequate. If “extraordinary care” simply means a flexibly applied negligence standard that considers the burdens and benefits of taking a precaution, it is problematic in premising criminal liability on ordinary negligence. If instead it refers to a higher duty or standard of care, it has many possible forms, such as requiring only a very slight deviation from a permissible or justifiable standard of conduct, placing a “thumb” on the scale of the Learned Hand test, identifying an epistemic standard more demanding than a reasonable person test, or recognizing a standard that is insensitive to individual capacities. However, some of these variations present a gratuitous or incoherent understanding of “negligence,” and none of them sufficiently explain and justify the RCO doctrine. (shrink)
When a plaintiff has been negligent in the sense that he should have acted otherwise, should the same criterion of negligence apply that would apply if he were creating risks only to others? Indeed, are there any persuasive reasons not to apply a radically different criterion of negligence? Moreover, should the plaintiff's recovery be diminished, outside the category of assumption of risk, even when the plaintiff has not been negligent? What are the justifiable criteria and limits of such plaintiff strict (...) responsibility? There are reasons for caution before concluding that a victim's self-regarding conduct is negligent. A victim often deserves special sympathy in the light of his special predicament, choosing between two evils, the immediate costs of which he must personally bear. Indeed, it might appear that the law is unfair or unduly onerous when it places significant demands on a victim with respect to his own self-regarding behavior. On the other hand, we should not forget that the victim's “duty” to use reasonable care is merely conditional: it applies only in case the victim seeks a remedy against the tortfeasor. (shrink)
Doug Husak suggests that sometimes an actor should be deemed reckless, and not merely negligent, with respect to the risks that she knowingly created but has forgotten at the moment of action. The validity of this conclusion, he points out, depends crucially on what it means to be aware of a risk. Husak’s neutral prompt and counterfactual actual belief criteria are problematic, however. More persuasive is his suggestion that we understand belief, in this moral and criminal law context, as a (...) concept whose meaning is determined by its function as a culpability standard. Husak concludes that inadvertent actors are often less culpable than knowing-but-later-forgetful actors; this is plausible, but there are also numerous counterexamples. Holly Smith focuses on negligence cases in which an agent’s failure to notice a risk stems, not from a prior culpable choice, but from an objectionable attitude or set of attitudes. She is right to emphasize that genuine moral culpability does not depend on conscious choice. However, Smith also asserts that decisions that flow from an actor’s objectionable attitudes are only rarely culpable, because they often do not arise from a reasonably full configuration of the actor’s motives. This last requirement is, I fear, an unrealistic and unnecessarily demanding criterion of culpability. Even when many of the actor’s evaluative attitudes are inactive in Smith’s sense, the actor might deserve blame for not bringing them to bear on his decision. Michael Moore and Heidi Hurd thoroughly explore, and find deficient, H.L.A. Hart’s unexercised capacity theory of negligence. They are correct that that theory requires a further judgment: an actor’s inadvertence is culpable only if he had the capacity to have adverted if X where X is the source of the actor’s moral desert. They overstate, however, in suggesting that the capacity issue falls out of the picture once we identify that underlying desert basis. The authors also worry that if desert is grounded on an underlying vice, we lack a reliable way of ranking the different vices that might explain the actor’s inadvertence; this is not a fatal objection, however, because negligence determinations are quite feasible even in the absence of clear rankings. Moore and Hurd conclude by identifying eight distinct categories in which criminal liability for negligence is justifiable. Negligence is indeed a surprisingly complex and pluralist concept. The three articles in this symposium brightly illuminate some of the most fundamental conceptual and normative issues in the debate over whether it is just to blame and punish the negligently inadvertent. (shrink)
What is the proper role of cost-benefit analysis in understanding the tort concept of negligence or reasonable care? A straightforward question, you might think. But it is a question that manages to elicit groans of exasperation from those on both sides of the controversy. For most utilitarians and adherents to law and economics, the answer is obvious: to say that people should not be negligent is to say that they should minimize the sum of the costs of accidents and the (...) costs of preventing accidents. Under the economic formulation of the famous Learned Hand test, they should take a precaution if but only if the marginal costs (or burden, B) of that precaution are less than its marginal benefits (in the form of reduced risks of injury, measured by multiplying the probability (P) of the injury times the magnitude (L) of the injury if it occurs). If B>PxL, it would be absurd to require the greater expenditure, B. For many advocates of a fairness, corrective justice, rights-based, or contractualist perspective, the opposite answer is equally obvious. Permitting a person to impose risks of harm on others merely because he would thereby obtain a benefit (or would otherwise incur a burden) greater than the discounted value of the harm he might inflict, amounts to authorizing him to dump the costs of his risky activities on innocent victims. To permit this type of sacrifice of individuals on the altar of aggregate social welfare is morally abhorrent. Both sets of criticism have important elements of truth. Neither an unqualified cost-benefit analysis nor an unqualified rights-based rejection of tradeoffs is defensible - either as a description of tort doctrine and practice or as a normative prescription. However, a qualified (sensitive) consequentialist approach can accommodate legitimate criticisms of cost-benefit analysis: the consequentialist can launder preferences, and can consider the distribution of risk both in the social welfare calculus and in determining whether to compensate. At the same time, a qualified (tough-minded) deontological approach can accommodate the legitimate need to recognize tradeoffs: the deontologist can permit intrapersonal but not interpersonal aggregation of risks and benefits, can apply the concept of threshold deontology to risky activity, and can consider individual rather than population risk. I conclude that the formulation of the Learned Hand test found in the Restatement Third of Torts is broad enough to encompass each of these qualified approaches. (shrink)
1. Comparing the weight of different evils is highly problematic; neither a positivist, interpretive account nor an exclusively aspirational account is satisfactory. 2. Alexander is correct that choosing a lesser evil is sometimes a mandate, not a mere permission, but the point has wider application than he indicates. 3. Is a choice of lesser but not least evil justifiable? Alexander’s affirmative answer is only partially convincing. 4. Alexander endorses a striking claim: the very notion of a reckless belief or reckless (...) mistake (as to the factual grounds for a justification) is incoherent. This claim is insupportable, but the flaws in his argument demonstrate the complexity of the concept of reckless belief, especially in the context of justiﬁcation defenses, where the probabilistic aspect of the distinction between permissible and impermissible risk-taking is especially salient. 5. Alexander aptly notes that the legislatively preclusion doctrine (which denies application of the lesser evils defense) creates a fundamental tension between legal actors’ power to articulate the content of the defense and the democratic pedigree of the criminal law. I conclude that genuinely democratic principles can be served by permitting juries considerable latitude to recognize a defense when the legislature has not yet had occasion to formulate an exception, or even, in some cases, by authorizing de facto civil disobedience. (shrink)
This chapter reaches the following conclusions about laws that enhance punishment for criminal conduct prompted by group hatred or bias:Hatred should not be either a necessary or a sufficient condition for enhanced punishment.Enhanced punishment is justifiable when bias crimes display greater culpability, express disrespect for the victim’s group, or cause either greater psychic harm to the victim or group-specific outrage in the victim’s community.Properly designed bias crime laws do not improperly punish for thoughts or character.Such laws are more defensible if (...) they require that the actor’s primary motive was animus toward the disfavored group.There is no principled reason to require that such laws merely enhance punishment for an already existing parallel crime.Increasing punishment significantly because of bias may violate principles of proportionality. (shrink)
Notwithstanding the demands of retributive desert, strict criminal liability is sometimes defensible when the strict liability pertains, not to whether conduct is to be criminalized at all, but to the seriousness of the actor’s crime. Suppose an actor commits an intentional assault or rape, and accidentally brings about a death. Punishing the actor more seriously because the death resulted is sometimes justifiable, even absent proof of his independent culpability as to the death. But what punishment is proportionate for such an (...) actor? Should he be punished as harshly as an intentional or knowing killer? This article offers a framework for analysing these difficult questions. After rejecting a broad forfeiture justification for strict liability in grading, it articulates a more promising set of arguments, premised on the actor’s ‘change of normative position’ by choosing to commit a crime. Three principles of culpability sometimes justify strict liability in grading: holistic culpability, attention to the degree of unjustifiability of the risk, and rough comparability in culpability. Strict liability in grading can be appropriate when the risk of committing the more serious crime (i) is a risk intrinsic to the less serious crime or (ii) is minimally foreseeable. The article also addresses the relevance of moral luck, ie the principle that the fortuitous occurrence of a result or circumstance increases the actor’s just deserts. Even if moral luck is recognized, it cannot fully justify strict liability in grading. (shrink)
In criminal law, the mental state of the defendant is a crucial determinant of the grade of crime that the defendant has committed and of whether the conduct is criminal at all. Under the widely accepted modern hierarchy of mental states, an actor is most culpable for causing harm purposely and progressively less culpable for doing so knowingly, recklessly, or negligently. Notably, this hierarchy emphasizes cognitive rather than conative mental states. But this emphasis, I argue, is often unjustified. When we (...) punish and blame for wrongful acts, we should look beyond the cognitive dimensions of the actor’s culpability and should consider affective and volitional dimensions as well, including the actor’s intentions, motives, and attitudes. One promising alternative mental state is the attitude of culpable indifference. However, we must proceed carefully when permitting criminal liability to turn on culpable indifference and similar attitudes, lest we punish vicious or unvirtuous feelings that are no.. (shrink)
This review addresses how the criminal law of homicide would be reformulated if it expressed only nonconsequentialist principles. Special attention is given to aggravated and mitigated categories of murder, to difficulties with the author’s “social meaning” approach predicated on responsible choice, to whether aggravating factors for murder should be limited to heinous motives, and to the distinction between justification and excuse in the law of provocation.