D. The Objectives of Tort Law

Author:Philip H. Osborne
Profession:Faculty of Law. The University of Manitoba

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In recent years, there has been a great deal of debate about the purpose of tort law in Canadian society. There are two contrasting approaches to this issue. The first approach perceives tort law as primarily an ethical system promoting the personal responsibility of wrongdoers for the harm that they have caused to others. The function of tort law is, therefore, primarily to correct individual injustices that have arisen between citizens. The contrasting approach suggests that tort law is a legal construct designed to achieve a number of identifiable functions, all of which are in the public interest. Therefore, emphasis is placed on identifying the full range of the objectives of tort law and on evaluating the degree to which these objectives are met. It may loosely be described as a contest between the approach of the "moralists" and that of the "instrumentalists."

1) The Moralist View

The moralist approach explains tort law as a system of corrective justice based on the ethical principle of personal responsibility for damage caused by wrongdoing.32Tort law is designed primarily to rectify an imbalance between the litigants caused by the wrongful conduct of the

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defendant. Tort law is, on this view, grounded in a simple and elegant moral imperative: personal accountability for the consequences of one’s wrongful actions. It is a reflection and embodiment of intuitive ethical and moral principles that are the foundation of a stable, civilized, and humane society. Like all deeply held cultural attitudes and values, the ideas of accountability for wrongdoing and the reparation of harm caused by wrongdoing are so ingrained that they tend to be taken for granted. It is for that reason that many tort principles feel "right" on a visceral and emotional level. Tort law is, consequently, to be valued for itself. It does not need to be justified by what it may or may not achieve in respect of other pragmatic public or private functions. It is a repository of societal values that speak to us about how to live in a crowded community with mutual respect for the interests of others. It protects individual liberty by defining our rights against the wrongful interference of others with our person, property, and other recognized interests. That is enough to explain its appeal, its strength, and its importance to Canadian society.

2) The Instrumentalist View

The instrumentalist approach to tort law is less romantic and idealistic. It identifies the multiplicity of desirable functions of tort law, it evaluates the degree to which these goals are achieved, and it contemplates alternative legal and non-legal vehicles that may attain those goals more effectively and efficiently.33These questions generate a great deal of heated debate but there is some agreement on the aspirations and objectives of tort law, which are set out below.

a) Compensation

The most important function of tort law is to provide compensation for losses caused by conduct that the courts regard as below societal standards. Tort law is designed to restore the plaintiff to the position that she would have been in if the tort had not been committed. Compensation is, therefore, tailored to the particular loss that the individual plaintiff has suffered. It seeks to provide a full indemnity for the plaintiff’s losses.

The compensatory power of tort law has been enhanced dramatically by liability insurance. Liability insurance not only protects the defendant from the adverse financial consequences of being held liable in

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tort, but it also guarantees, to the great advantage of successful plaintiffs, that judgments and settlements within the scope of the defend-ant’s policy will be paid. Almost all defendants in tort cases either carry liability insurance or are self-insurers. To a large degree, therefore, the tort process does not shift loss from the plaintiff to the defendant. The loss is spread or distributed broadly throughout the community to those who purchase liability insurance and to the consumers of goods and services of self-insurers.34

b) Punishment

Tort law also aspires to express society’s disapproval of the conduct of wrongdoers who cause harm to other citizens. An award of damages is not only designed to compensate the plaintiff. It also acts as a sanction on the defendant. The...

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