Among possible legal responses to a pandemic, quashing tort liability might seem startling. Common sense indicates that a deadly and debilitating disease would call for possible tort liability, to enable recovery for losses by those subjected to the disease because of others’ carelessness while also discouraging careless conduct that could lead to preventable cases illness in the first place. Yet, when faced with SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19, the life-threatening disease caused by the virus, the first response of many American lawmakers was to enact, or attempt to enact, COVID-19 “liability shield” statutes. These laws introduced doctrine to eliminate or narrow grounds for tort claims against those who caused others to contract COVID-19.
As it turns out, the COVID-19 liability shields have an extensive pedigree in the American law of torts. In this article, I review the steady introduction of what I call “eliminative” tort doctrines, especially the wave of them dating back to the 1970s. Individually and together, these doctrines sharply reduce the grounds for personal injury claims, burden the injured’s ability to prevail in permitted claims, and restrict the recovery available even when such claims succeed. Eliminative tort doctrines appear in both federal and state law and apply in a variety of factual circumstances. I maintain that existing eliminative tort doctrines facilitated the rapid promulgation of intricate, detailed COVID-19 liability shield statutes.
A fifty-year surge in eliminative doctrines is a distinctive development. It calls for explanation and interpretation. In this article, I introduce a tort theory that centers eliminative tort doctrines, rather than dismiss them as aberrations or passing political fads. I title the theory “tort deflationism.” It is deflationary because it treats tort law as a field that should be modest in the legal liability it creates and the extent of the liability it allows. I argue that tort deflationism is latent in the post-1960s eliminative tort doctrines and their relationship to modern American conservatism, a broad social, intellectual, and political movement that arose after World War II and continues to the present day.
I myself do not endorse tort deflationism. I have chosen to articulate it in this article in order to explore its explanatory power, evaluative force, implications for alternative tort theories, and potential significance for democratic theory and practice. Tort deflationism deserves serious attention, if for no other reason than to clarify grounds for objecting to it or to criticize its conception of the law of personal injury.
The article examines the COVID-19 liability shields and their predecessors so as to identify the features that any theory geared to them must illuminate. It then spells out the mid-level principles central to tort deflationism and develops a full-blown theoretical synthesis of these principles by showing their ties to the intellectual and ethical commitments of modern American conservatism. Next, the article canvases how tort deflationism can make sense of developments in American tort law other than the post-1960s surge in eliminative tort doctrines, using as an example the law of workplace injury. Then, it covers how tort deflationism compares to other tort theories, showing how it serves as a useful foil. Finally, the article considers how tort deflationism relates to ongoing debates about the legitimacy of law in pluralist democracies.
Journal of Tort Law, Vol. 14, No. 2, forthcoming.
Scholarly Commons Citation
Feldman, Heidi Li, "From Liability Shields to Democratic Theory: What We Need from Tort Theory Now" (2021). Georgetown Law Faculty Publications and Other Works. 2422.