Crashing your Car and Eating it Too: Tort Law and No-Fault Car Insurance

Notes and Thoughts on “Tort Liability and Corrective Justice” by Murphy and Coleman

Suppose you’re a baby and you’re driving my car because the Beatles’ song told you too.  You crash the car and destroy someone’s beautiful pink flamingo lawn ornaments.  Who should pay to replace the flamingos?  Most reasonable people would say it’s the baby’s fault (well, maybe not, but play along).  But what if it was determined that the Beatles, being a rock and roll group, sing the devil’s music which hypnotizes babies in to driving cars and that when the song’s over, baby will crash?

Now things aren’t so clear are they?  If forces outside baby’s control caused him/her to drive and crash, maybe we ought to reconsider where the fault lies!

Ok, these are admittedly horrible examples that will do more to confuse the issue of legal liability than help, but now you’re thinking about it right?….right?….right?

I’ll get to the point before I lose my meager audience.  Today we are going to talk about tort laws (liability laws) in the context of car insurance. Yay!  Fun time!

Definitions and Framework
 When someone gets injured (physically, emotionally, financially) the basic legal assumption is that the victim must bear the losses/injuries.  Yup.  You read that correctly.  Notice I di’int say anything about whether they injured themselves or not.  ‘Cuz self-injury happens.  I stub ma’toe all the time but it doesn’t immediately entitle me to restitution. (Is restitution the oldest legal word?)  Or sometimes the wind picks up sand and blows it right in my eyeball–again, injury doesn’t automatically guarantee restitution.  Or sometimes I damage my own property cuz I’m clumsy.  In legal language they say “initially losses lie where they have fallen”.

So, check it.  We gah kick this up a notch.   Tort law is all about specifying the conditions under which this basic position (that losses lie with the loser) can be overridden.   We gots rules for this stuffs.

The first set of rules are the liability rules which are the conditions a victim must meet in order that another pays for his losses.  For example, if Vicky the Vandal scratched the paint off your car for no reason except to amuse herself, this would probably fulfill one of the conditions that entitled you to compensation for your loss.  The losses would no longer lie with you.

There are 2 kinds of liability rules:
1)  Strict rules of liability in which the victim must establish that
     a) the defendant acted
     b) the victim suffered a compensable loss
     c) the defendants action caused the loss
2)  Rule of fault liability in which the victim must establish all of (1) and
     d) the defendant’s conduct was at fault

Notice the important distinction between the two kinds of liability laws: in (1) there is no need to demonstrate fault–merely that the injury was a consequence (intentional or unintentional) of the defendants action (i.e., there was a causal relation between the defendant’s act and the injury to the victim); whereas in (2) fault must be established, in addition to the conditions to (1).

The rules of the defendant are the rules of positive defense.  Basically, these are the conditions under which a defendant can legitimately avoid having to pay compensation.  Suppose you are a master hypnotist and hypnotized Vicky the Vandal to scrape the paint of your own car.  This likely scenario might get Vicky the Vandal off the hook for paying for your new paint job.

Where’s the Philoso-beef?

So, what’s this all got to do with philosophy?  Sounds like the legal system’s got shit pretty much figerd out, now youz gong brang in philosophy an’ mess shit up?  Why you philosophers always gotta do that?

Yo, check it.  What’s the philosophy behind fault liability?  The standard understanding is that it is necessary for justice.  If Vicky the Vandal can be shewn to be at fault (maybe because of intent to cause damage) then it seems to follow from the notion of justice the Vicky pay for the losses to the owner of the car.

Wut Wut about strict liability laws?  Wutz philosophy gotz to say about them?  These are presumed to be there for reasons of utility.  It seems that society is better of if individuals or groups who are caused to have losses, are compensated by those who caused the loss.  If victims had to pay for their own losses because of, for example, the negligence of others, the social effects will be undesirable.  It would mean victims might suffer because of the negligence of others and/or there will be no incentive for people or groups to consider the possible impacts of their actions/policies.

So, now we’re starting to talk a little philosophy.  But wait! there’s more!  What if these assumed goods are just that–assumed.  What if we’ve built our whole system of tort laws on false assumptions?  What if fault liability better promotes utility and strict liability better promotes justice? Oh! Snap!  And it doesn’t end there.  We’re looking at tort law as though there are only 2 possible ways of doing it, how can we properly evaluate these 2 methodes if we haven’t even explored other alternatives?  Stoopid philosophy, why you makin’ me crazy all the time?

To examine these fun questions and more, we will look at tort laws in the context of automobile (who uses that word anymore? I’m going to use “whip” instead) insurance.

Justice and the Cost of Whip Accidents

Ok, for those of you who aren’t hip to the jive and connected to today’s youth culture to the extent that I am, “whip” means “horseless buggy”.

First let me make a few comments on no-fault whip insurance and accidents: a) cases aren’t handled individually; that is, for every accident there isn’t a court case.  b) the costs of repaying the losses aren’t applied to the person who’s fault it was.  This might bother some because it seems contrary to justice.  If the person who’s fault it was doesn’t pay for the damage, how is that fair?

Not only would it seem unfair that a driver who caused an accident doesn’t pay for it, but a further injustice is that the cost is distributed to all drivers covered by that insurance company, regardless of their driving record or involvement.  That just seems tripple unjust.

But wait!  Does it seem fair that a normally conscientious driver who makes a slight driving error be on the hook for the cost of someone’s car and hospital bills?  What if those bills put the driver in permanent poverty.  How can we say it is just that someone (and their dependents) must live a life of poverty because of one small driving error?  That doesn’t seem like justice either.

It may seem trivial but accidents happen by…accident.  They’re not called “on-purposes”.   Maybe so. But one might reply that not all cases involve conscientious drivers.  So, what do?  Do we have one set of rules for car accidents caused by intentionally reckless driving and another for innocent accidents?  The prollem with that is we’d still need, in many cases, a trial to determine fault.  So we’re back at square one.

Retributive Justice

Proponents of retributive justice say “wrongdoing deserves its comeuppance:  a measure of pain, suffering, or deprivation should be extracted from wrongdoers, and the deprivation should reflect the nature and magnitude of the wrongdoing.”  A subset of this view is that the bar for punishment is set where the perpetrator is shown to have been morally defective.  So, penalization arises (he he…he said penalization arises!) when legal fault is shown to be related to moral fault.

The basic retributive argument goes: if someone’s (morally) defective conduct is a relevant factor in how/why the harm was brought about, then he is responsible for the harm.  Along with that responsibility comes the obligation to pay for the damages.   Justice is served…(bitches!)

But we might not want to accept such a hyper-moral system of law.  Not all laws are moral laws (e.g. traffic laws) and there are questions about who’s standard of morality we are going to apply (mine).  Just because someone had one too many drinks before driving doesn’t mean the person is immoral.  Irresponsible and foolish perhaps, but drinking and driving isn’t immoral just as it is hard to see how speeding is immoral.

Maybe instead we ought to abandon the criterion of moral character.  It might make more sense to say that, in the interest of justice, penalties should befall those who fail to satisfy “the legal standard of due care”.  So, instead of ascribing fault based on some moral standard, we base it on a legal standard.

Two Criteria to Establish Fault
When we assess fault, legally or morally, there are often two criteria that are evaluated.  First is the relationship between the act and the appropriate standard of conduct of a situation.  Here we ax, to what degree were the driver’s actions consistent with appropriate actions in a similar situation.  To the degree that they deviated we ascribe fault.  A defendant or their lawyer might try to avoid fault by arguing that their actions didn’t fall outside of a norm or that there were extenuating circumstances that explain the erratic driving (there was a cougar in the car).

In short the defendant will try to avert fault by showing that either their driving was consistent with a driving norm or that there were special circumstances for which they fell outside the norm that absolve them of blame.

The second is the agent’s state of mind.  Maybe, unbeknownst to the driver, someone slipped him some crazy pills before he got behind the wheel.  Or maybe he was irreconcilably upset cuz he heard over the radio that the Justin Beiber concert was cancelled.

Important to both of these criteria is that to establish fault they often have to both be true of the defendant: that his behaviour was outside an accepted legal norm (for no good reason) and that he was of sound mind.  Also, keep in mind that these criteria are about establishing fault, not strict liability (causation).  An implication of this is that people are only penalized for genuine wrongdoing.

In the next installment we’ll look more closely at problems with retributive justice when applied to auto accidents and introduce another concept of justice, “corrective justice”.  Stay tuned!

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