Tort Law: Public and Private

By Alex Stein

Readers interested in medical malpractice might be interested in seeing—and commenting on—my new article, The Domain of Torts, forthcoming in 117 Colum. L. Rev. (2017).

This Article advances a novel positive theory of the law of torts that grows out of a careful and extensive reading of the case law. The Article’s core insight is that the benefit from the harm-causing activity determines the form and substance of tort liability. This finding is both surprising and innovative, since tort scholars universally believe that the operation of the doctrines that determine individuals’ liability for accidents—negligence, causation, and damage—is driven by harms, not benefits. The key role of benefits in the operation of our tort system has eluded the searching eye of scholars, even though it is fully consistent with the case law.

Specifically, this Article shows that our tort system operates in two parallel modes—private and public—rather than just one, as conventional accounts erroneously suggest. Furthermore, the system’s mode of operation and the rules allocating liability for accidental harm are dictated by the type of the benefit sought by the alleged tortfeasor. If the benefit sought by the tortfeasor is purely private, she will be held liable for the harm resulting from her actions whenever she exposes her victim to a nonreciprocal risk. The tort system never allows actors to inflict harm on others when the benefit they seek to derive from their activity is purely private, no matter how significant that private benefit is relative to the victim’s harm. The system consequently does not hesitate to discourage the production of private benefits even when they are economically more valuable than the victim’s safety. That is, in cases of private benefit, tort law excludes cost-benefit analysis in favor of the reciprocity and equality principles. When the benefit that accompanies the harm-causing activity is public, by contrast, tort law adopts a strictly utilitarian approach and focuses exclusively on minimizing the cost of accidents and the cost of avoiding accidents as a total sum. Liability in such cases is imposed based on the famous Learned Hand formula (and similar formulations). Accordingly, if the benefit from the harm-causing activity is greater than the expected harm and precautions are too costly, no liability will be imposed. The consequent reduction in the victim’s protection is counterweighted by society’s need not to chill the production of public benefits that the victim enjoys on equal terms with all other members of her community. Continue reading

Medical Malpractice and the Middle-Ground Fallacy: Should Victims’ Families Recover Compensation for Emotional Harm?

By Alex Stein

Medical malpractice victims are generally entitled to recover compensation for emotional harm they endure: see, e.g., Alexander v. Scheid, 726 N.E.2d 272, 283–84 (Ind. 2000). But what about a victim’s close family member? Take a person who suffers emotional distress from witnessing a medical mistreatment and the consequent injury or demise of her loved one. Should the court obligate the negligent physician or hospital to compensate that person for her emotional harm?

This question has no uniform answer under our medical malpractice laws. Some states allow victims’ families to recover compensation for their emotional harm, while others do not. Three weeks ago, the Connecticut Supreme Court struck a middle ground between these two extremes. Squeo v. Norwalk Hosp. Ass’n, 316 Conn. 558, — A.3d —- (Conn. 2015). Continue reading

Exploring the Brain in Pain: An Applied Neuroscience & Law Initiative

Amanda C. Pustilnik

I am excited to join the Petrie-Flom Center as the first Senior Fellow in Law & Applied Neuroscience. This fellowship is the product of an innovative partnership between the Petrie-Flom Center and the Center for Law, Brain and Behavior (CLBB) at Massachusetts General Hospital. This partnership aims to translate developments in neuroscience into legal applications, remaining sensitive to the normative dimensions of many – if not all – legal questions. The field of law & neuroscience is large and growing, addressing questions that intersect with nearly every area of law and a huge range of social and human concerns. CLBB is bringing together scientists, bioethicists, and legal scholars to look at questions ranging from criminal responsibility and addiction, to mind-reading and brain-based lie detection, to how the brain’s changes over our lifecourse affect our capacities to make decisions.

In the first year of this joint venture, we will be focusing on a set of issues with potentially huge implications for the law: The problem of pain. Pain is pervasive in law, from tort to torture, from ERISA to expert evidence. Pain and suffering damages in tort add up to billions of dollars per year; disability benefits, often awarded to people who suffer or claim to have chronic pain, amount to over one hundred billion annually. Yet legal doctrines and decision-makers often understand pain poorly, relying on concepts that are out of date and that can cast suspicion on pain sufferers as having a problem that is “all in their heads.”

Now, brain imaging technologies are allowing scientists to see the brain in pain – and to reconceive of many types of pain as diseases of the central nervous system. Brain imaging shows that, in many cases, the problem is literally in sufferers’ heads: Long-term pain changes the structure and function of the brain, perpetuating non-adaptive pain and interfering with cognitive and emotional function. Continue reading