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Ohio State Law Journal



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Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Tort Theory, Negligence, Tort Liability, Due Care, Morton J. Horowitz, Strict Liability, Fault Liability


A century ago Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., examined the history of negligence in search of a general theory of tort. He concluded that from the earliest times in England, the basis of tort liability was fault, or the failure to exercise due care. Liability for an injury to another arose whenever the defendant failed "to use such care as a prudent man would use under the circumstances.” A decade ago Morton J. Horwitz reexamined the history of negligence for the same purpose and concluded that negligence was not originally understood as carelessness or fault. Rather, negligence meant "neglect or failure fully to perform a pre-existing duty, whether imposed by contract, statute, or common-law status.” Because the defendant was liable for the breach of this duty regardless of the reason for his nonfeasance, Horwitz argues, the original standard of tort liability was not fault but strict liability. He maintains that the fault theory of negligence was not established in tort law until the nineteenth century by judges who sought "to create immunities from legal liability and thereby to provide substantial subsidies for those who undertook schemes of economic development." The modern notion of negligence, then, was incorporated into tort law by economically motivated judges for the benefit of businessmen and business enterprises. The question whether tort liability for personal injuries originally was fault or strict liability probably will never be answered. Moreover, whether liability was negligence or strict liability, with notable exceptions, was not an issue in tort cases prior to the nineteenth century. This Article therefore proposes a different conceptual approach to the early history of tort. It tries to explain early tort cases in their own context, rather than within the modern paradigm of fault versus strict liability. This approach focuses on the principles and policies that judges explicitly used to decide the scope of tort liability and to determine the rules of decision they applied in tort cases.