8. Harry Potter and the Purposes of Tort Law

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This is an incomplete and underdeveloped (but potentially
insightful) draft. Please do not quote or cite without
permission.

Harry Potter and the Purposes
of Tort Law
SCOTT H ERSHOVITZ *

Tort scholars are divided over what would seem a simple
question: What is tort law for? The leading answer is that tort
law promotes efficient behavior by giving people incentives to
take account of costs they impose on others.
1 Another familiar
answer is that tort law aims at corrective justice, enforcing a
moral requirement that “wrongdoers . . . repair the wrongful
losses their conduct occasions.”
2 For many years, those
answers set the terms of debate, but a third contender has
emerged. Tort law, according to civil recourse theorists,
empowers individuals to seek redress from who have wronged
them.
3
There is no reason to think that the question “What is tort
law for?” admits only one answer. Tort is an ancient
institution, and it is possible, even likely, that it serves many
purposes and has been repurposed many times. But efficiency,

* Assistant Professor, University of Michigan Law School. 1 See e.g., William M. Landes and Richard A. Posner, T HE ECONOMIC
STRUCTURE OF TORT LAW 1 (1987). 2 Jules L. Coleman, R ISKS AND WRONGS 325 (1992). 3 See The Constitutional Status of Tort Law: Due Process and the Right to a
Law for the Redress of Wrongs, 115 Y
ALE L.J. 524, 601-605 (2005);
Benjamin C. Zipursky, Civil Recourse, Not Corrective Justice, 91 G EO . L.J.
695, 754 (2003).

Harry Potter and the Purposes of Tort Law

2 corrective justice, and civil recourse are in deep tension with
one another. On the economic view, tort law allocates accident
costs according to forward-looking principles. A plaintiff’s
loss is to be shifted to the defendant only if doing so would
minimize the costs of future accidents. In contrast, for
corrective justice theorists, the past is the point. Tort law
assigns costs on the basis of backward-looking principles that
address the question who, among the parties, is responsible for
the plaintiff’s injury. Proponents of civil recourse theory reject
both views, in part because they reject the idea that tort law is
centrally concerned with cost allocation.
I think we should go a step further and reject all three
accounts. Tort law is a richer institution than the prevailing
theories portray it. Both the economist and the corrective
justice theorist aim to explain the substantive rules of tort; they
generate theories that explain who gets money and under what
circumstances. But there is more to tort than transfer payments.
Plaintiffs are motivated by money, but not always and not only.
Plaintiffs also sue to get answers about how they were injured.
They sue to force defendants to explain their behavior, in a
public forum, upon a charge of wrongdoing. They sue to get
the vindication of a court judgment in their favor. For their
part, defendants litigate to avoid liability. But they also go to
court to reestablish their good name, or to vindicate their belief
that their behavior was justified. On the older accounts of tort
law, the non-monetary aspirations that tort litigants bring to the
courthouse are peripheral, if they are visible at all. Civil
recourse theory is potentially more congenial to these concerns.
But as we shall see, civil recourse theorists tend to paint a
partial picture of tort law too.
In the opening sections of the Essay, I present three
iterations of a thought experiment (starring Harry Potter), in
which tort is reimagined to exemplify as far as possible the
purposes posited by economics, corrective justice, and civil
recourse. The thought experiments highlight features of tort

Harry Potter and the Purposes of Tort Law

3 law that the standard accounts overlook. In the sections that
follow, I argue that an adequate account of tort law will give
these features a central role.
I. Harry Potter and the Cost of Accidents
Imagine that after graduating from Hogwarts School of
Witchcraft and Wizardry, Harry Potter goes to law school. As
a 1L, he takes torts from a professor with an economist’s view
of the institution. She teaches Potter that the purpose of tort
law is to minimize the sum of the costs of accidents and the
costs of accident prevention. Tort law does this, she explains,
by giving people incentives to take account of the costs they
impose on others.
Like many other first-year students, Potter is enamored with
economic analysis. He appreciates the elegance with which it
accounts for central features of tort law, and he finds the
normative theory underpinning it attractive. But the more
enchanted Potter becomes with the economic account of tort
law, the more disenchanted he becomes with tort law itself.
“Tort law is awfully expensive,” he thinks. “Surely, there must
be a cheaper way to reduce the costs of accidents.” And then,
remembering that he is the world’s most powerful wizard, he
raises his wand. Potter casts a spell that works like this. Every
time a person imposes a cost on another that would be
compensable by the tort system (say, by flying carelessly and
knocking someone off his broomstick), a sum of money equal
to the cost is transferred from the bank account of the injurer to
the account of the victim, and a message is dispatched
informing the person of the debit to their account and the
reason for it. Potter eliminates the administrative costs of the
tort system with one swoop of his wand, and the results are
impressive. The spell pushes accident costs nearer their
optimal level than the tort system, because all and only those
who are actually liable are made to pay, they are made to pay

Harry Potter and the Purposes of Tort Law

4 immediately, and they cannot avoid paying by investing in
lawyers rather than safety.
That’s no small feat, yet Potter’s professor will surely tell
him that he has cast the wrong spell. Tort’s rules, she will
explain, are shaped by administrative costs. Because Potter can
dispense with them, he should not replicate tort doctrine.
Instead of charging the accounts of those that could be held
liable in tort law, for example, Potter’s spell should take money
from the person or institution who could have avoided an
accident most cheaply. Car manufacturers, for example, may
have superior information about how accidents are likely to
occur than drivers do. If it is more cost effective for them to
invest in accident prevention by installing safety equipment
than it is for drivers to take extra care, Potter’s spell should
hold them liable, even if they would not be a proper defendant
in a tort suit. Tort law, Potter’s professor will tell him, doesn’t
hold cheapest cost avoiders liable only because the cost of
identifying them is high, a problem Potter does not face.
Potter’s professor will also point out that the money taken
from the cheapest cost avoider’s account need not be
transferred to the victim. To be sure, the money must be
transferred to somebody; if Potter’s spell simply deducted the
money without directing it elsewhere, the spell would not be
costless. Tort requires defendants to pay victims primarily so
that victims have an incentive to sue defendants. But no
inducement to litigation is needed once Potter casts his spell.
Of course, other considerations may support transferring money
to victims. There are costs to bearing the costs of accidents
which might be mitigated by the transfer, and in some
circumstances compensating victims can promote efficient
activity levels. But it is an open question whether these are the
most productive uses to which the money the spell seizes could
be put. Perhaps the money is better transferred the state’s
treasury, or channeled to the poor, or spread among all those
suffering physical infirmities, regardless of their source. If

Harry Potter and the Purposes of Tort Law

5 Potter’s spell can determine who is the cheapest cost avoider of
an accident, surely it can determine the optimal recipient of
seized funds.
Potter’s professor may not stop her tinkering there. She
might suggest that Potter’s spell take money from those who
create risk, whether or not the risks are realized. She might
suggest that Potter adjust tort’s mix of strict liability and fault
where necessary to encourage efficient activity levels. Or that
Potter hold people liable for causing pure economic loss. Or
that Potter make any number of changes that would promote
efficient behavior. As the professor revises Potter’s spell, it
will look less and less like tort law, but it will better achieve
tort law’s aims.

* * *

The question what form Potter's spell should take boils
down to this: What is the optimal legal regime if there are no
administration costs? That is an interesting question, even if it
has no practical upshot. There is, however, a deeper question I
want to pursue through this thought experiment: If Potter was
here, right now, offering to cast the spell the best economic
theory would recommend, would there be any reasons to reject
his offer? What, if anything, would we sacrifice by eliminating
tort law in favor of a costless scheme that provided perfect
incentives for efficient behavior, and should we care about the
loss?
If promoting efficient behavior is the answer to the question
what tort law is for, we can do no better than Potter’s spell.
There is nothing tort law is meant to do that the spell does not
accomplish. The spell, to be sure, does not do everything tort
law does, but happily so. Tort law, for example, affords
defendants opportunities to delay or avoid payment by putting
plaintiffs to their proof even if they know they are liable. The
spell does not, and it achieves more effective deterrence

Harry Potter and the Purposes of Tort Law

6 because of that. Tort law also creates employment
opportunities, for lawyers and experts, among others. No one
objects to jobs, of course, but salaries comprise of large part of
tort’s administrative burden, and if we can accomplish the aims
of tort law without paying them, we should be glad for the
savings.
There are things tort law does, however, which we might
not be as happy to forego. Tort law provides a public forum
where those who have been injured may lodge complaints
against those they believe responsible. The spell does not. Tort
law invites those accused of wrongdoing to explain their
behavior and justify it if they can. The spell does not. Tort law
furnishes people with tools to discover who is responsible for
their injuries and how their injuries came about. The spell does
not. And tort law provides an opportunity for public
vindication of one party’s position in a dispute over another’s.
The spell, of course, does not. We might tie all these together,
loosely, by saying that tort law allows people to hold one
another publicly accountable. Potter’s spell does not.
If I am right in thinking that is important that tort law
allows people to hold one another accountable in these ways
(later I will defend the claim that it is), one natural thought is
that Potter’s spell could be tweaked to accommodate these
aims. That may be true, but it is beside the point. Potter’s spell
implements the legal regime that best achieves the aims
economists posit for tort law. Potter’s spell does not do the
things listed above because, on the economic view of the
institution, tort suits are transaction costs. Litigation is the
thing we must do to determine who pays whom and how much,
but the point is in the paying not in the procedures that get us
there.
So back, then, to our question: What would we sacrifice by
eliminating tort law in favor Potter’s spell, and should we care
about the loss? We would give up tort litigation, and we should
care because lawsuits institutionalize practices of interpersonal

Harry Potter and the Purposes of Tort Law

7 accountability that are valuable quite apart from the transfers of
money they ultimately license. In Part IV, I will defend that
claim, but we have more to ask of Harry Potter before we get
there.
II. Harry Potter and the Rectification of Wrongs
Imagine again that Harry Potter leaves Hogwarts and heads to
law school. This time, however, Potter takes torts from a
professor who has a corrective justice theorist’s view of the
institution. She tells Potter that morality requires those who
infringe the rights of others to repair the wrongful losses they
cause, and that tort law enforces that moral requirement.
4 Once
again, Potter is taken with his professor’s account of the
institution, but he is struck by the thought that tort law is
awfully expensive and slow. “Surely,” he muses, “there must
be a cheaper, faster way of doing justice between wrongdoers
and their victims.” And then, remembering that he is the
world’s most powerful wizard, Potter raises his wand. He casts
a spell that works like this. Every time a person causes a loss in
a way compensable by the tort system (say, by carelessly
cracking someone else’s crystal ball), the precise sum of money
necessary to repair the loss is transferred from the bank account
of the injurer to the account of the victim.
Potter’s professor will be impressed, but she may suggest
that Potter tweak his spell. Corrective justice is the animating

4 For ease of exposition, Potter’s professor has a full-blown normative
commitment to the principle of corrective justice, but one can one can think
tort law is best understood as embodying that principle without taking a
view on whether wrongdoers really do have a moral obligation to repair the
wrongful losses they cause. See Jules L. Coleman, The Practice of
Principle: In Defence of Pragmatist Approach to Legal Theory 5 (2001)
(“The defensibility of corrective justice as a moral ideal is . . . independent
of its role in explaining tort law.”).

Harry Potter and the Purposes of Tort Law

8 principle of tort law, she will tell Potter, but it is also true that,
on occasion, tort allows plaintiffs to recover from people who
have not wronged them. The market-share liability cases,
especially Hymowitz v. Eli Lilly & Co.
5 have this character, 6
and several other tort doctrines seem at best tenuously
connected to the demands of corrective justice.
7 Potter’s
professor will not insist that Potter change his spell, as her
economically-oriented counterpart did with the economically-
enamored Potter. The fact that a transfer from defendant to
plaintiff is not demanded by corrective justice does not mean
that it is itself unjust. Thus, Potter may leave tort law as it is
without undermining its efforts to implement corrective justice.
But, if Potter is a purist, he may jettison several tort doctrines.
The professor may agitate more strongly for a different
revision to Potter’s spell. Many wrongs, she will point out, fly
below the radar of tort law. For example, one can unjustifiably
humiliate another without incurring liability for intentional
infliction of emotional distress, because the criteria for
application of that doctrine are so demanding. One can also fail
to rescue a person in need without incurring liability, even if
the rescue could be accomplished with no cost or risk to
oneself. On plausible (though in the latter case not
incontestable) constructions of our moral obligations, these
courses of conduct are wrong and should generate duties of
repair. Thus the professor may urge Potter to revise his spell to

5 539 N.E. 2d 941 (1989). 6 Hymowitz allowed plaintiffs to recover even from defendants who could
prove that they had not manufactured the DES pills their mothers had taken.
See Coleman, supra note 2, at 397-406 (suggesting “that we read the DES
cases not as an effort to implement corrective justice . . . but as an effort to
implement localized or constrained at-fault pools to deal with injuries
caused by certain kinds of defective products).
7 Among them, strict products liability for manufacturing defects, and the
reasonable person standard as applied to the mentally disabled.

Harry Potter and the Purposes of Tort Law

9 enforce all duties of repair, not simply those that tort law
implements.
Once again, however, the professor will not insist that
Potter make this revision. Corrective justice theorists do not
take the view that tort law seeks to maximize the amount of
corrective justice done (as, say, economists think that tort law
seeks to maximize social welfare). It doesn’t follow from the
fact that tort law redresses some injustices that it must aim to
redress all of them, or even that it must seek to redress all those
injustices that can be redressed without causing injustices of a
greater magnitude.
8 In fact, it may not be appropriate for the
state to play a role in redressing some forms of injustice. Once
one notices this, it becomes apparent that corrective justice is at
best a partial answer to the question what is tort law for. Tort
law implements some moral duties of repair, but not others, and
one cannot derive from the principle of corrective justice
limitations that explain tort law’s boundaries. Thus, the
principle of corrective justice must be supplemented with a
principle of political morality that tells us what duties of
corrective justice the state should enforce. To know whether he
should take on his professor’s suggestion to expand the ambit
of his spell, Potter will need to do some political philosophy.

* * *
Once again, I want to set aside the question what form
Potter’s spell should take if he accepts that corrective justice is
the aim of tort law. Our question is if Potter stood before us
offering to cast the spell that the best theory of corrective
justice would recommend, should we take him up on it? What,
if anything, would we sacrifice by eliminating tort law in favor

8 Indeed, Jules Coleman argues that the state need not implement duties of
corrective justice at all. Coleman, supra note 2, at 367 (“The state has the
moral authority, but not the moral duty, to implement corrective justice.”)

Harry Potter and the Purposes of Tort Law

10 of a costless scheme that enforced duties of repair, and should
we care about the loss?
One might object to Potter’s spell on the ground that it does
not in fact enforce duties of corrective justice. Corrective
justice provides agent-relative reasons for repair. If Smith
negligently crashes his car into Jones, and Jones is injured, we
all have reason to be concerned with Jones’s well-being, and
possibly even reasons to ameliorate his injury. The reasons that
we share are agent-neutral. According to the corrective justice
theorist, however, Smith has a reason the rest of us don’t.
Having breached an obligation to Jones, Smith (and Smith
alone) owes him a duty of repair. So, one might object, Potter’s
spell does not enforce Smith’s duty of repair, because it is
through Potter’s action that Jones is compensated, not Smith’s.
This objection is misplaced for two reasons. First, Potter’s
spell takes money from Smith and gives it to Jones, so there is a
sense in which it is Smith that satisfies the duty of repair. To
be sure, the payment is involuntary. But then payment after a
tort judgment is often involuntary too. In neither
circumstances is involuntary payment problematic: One who
has been forced to discharge a duty does discharge it, even if
we might regard her performance as, in some other sense,
defective. Second, duties of repair need not be satisfied by the
person subject to the duty.
9 If Smith’s wealthy cousin offers to
cut Jones a check for his injuries on Smith’s behalf, in the
normal case, no injustice is done by the fact that the check is
not drawn on Smith’s account, and Jones has no further claim
against Smith for compensation once he has been fully paid by
Smith’s cousin. There may be circumstances in which it is
inappropriate for one person to satisfy another’s duty of repair.
Tort law, for example, allows an insurer to discharge duties of
repair arising from negligence, but not from intentional

9 Coleman, supra note 2, at 327-328.

Harry Potter and the Purposes of Tort Law

11 misconduct. But even if, in some circumstances, a wrongdoer
must personally repair her victim’s loss, Potter’s spell comes as
near to that ideal as the tort system does, since it draws on
wrongdoers’ accounts to pay their victims.
Even though the objection is misplaced, its focus on the
impersonality of Potter’s spell is not. Through the spell,
Smith’s duty of repair to Jones is satisfied. But Jones has no
role in holding Smith accountable for his wrongdoing. He does
not get to file suit complaining about Smith’s conduct. He does
not get to demand that Smith explain his behavior or justify it if
he can. He does not get to commandeer the subpoena power of
the court to better understand how Smith caused his injury.
And he does not get the satisfaction of having his view that
Smith wronged him vindicated in a court judgment.
To be sure, the spell might be adjusted to serve some of
these aims. For example, the fact that the spell transferred
money from Smith to Jones on account of Smith’s negligence
might be published, and this might satisfy Jones’s interest in
public vindication of his claim (though, of course, Jones never
gets to make a claim). But that is beside the point. For the
corrective justice theorist, tort litigation is every bit as much a
transaction cost as it is for the economist. It is the thing that we
must do to determine the existence and content of duties of
repair. If Potter’s spell does that flawlessly, as we are
supposing it does, there is no reason on the corrective justice
model to go on with tort litigation.
If corrective justice really is the aim of tort law, then
Potter’s spell is as good as we can get. However, if I am right
in thinking that we should value tort’s institutionalization of
interpersonal accountability apart from the money ultimately
transferred (or here, the duties of repair ultimately satisfied), we
have reason to pause before taking Potter up on his offer.
Shortly, I will defend the claim that it is important to allow
Jones to hold Smith accountable in the ways just highlighted,
but first we have one last spell to ask of Potter.

Harry Potter and the Purposes of Tort Law

12 III. Harry Potter and the Right to Civil Recourse
Imagine (for the last time) that Harry Potter leaves Hogwarts
and goes to law school. This time Potter takes torts from a
civil recourse theorist. She tells him that people have a moral
right to respond to legal wrongs inflicted upon them. Since the
state prohibits private violence, it is obligated to provide a civil
means of recourse against wrongdoers.
10 Tort law, she
explains, authorizes successful plaintiffs to act against those
who wrong them, in most instances by taking compensation for
their injury if the defendant refuses to pay it. On other
occasions, the state allows plaintiffs to force defendants to take
specific remedial action, like returning stolen goods or abating
a nuisance. Tort law does not demand that wrongdoers pay
compensation or return stolen goods; rather it empowers
victims to make these demands at their discretion.
11
Potter is persuaded by his professor’s take on tort law, but
he finds himself frustrated that the procedure for authorizing
plaintiffs to act against those who wrong them is costly and
ponderous. And then, remembering that he is the world’s most
powerful wizard, Potter raises his wand. He casts a spell that
works like this. Every time a person wrongs another in a way
compensable by the tort system (say, by accidentally serving up
a poisonous potion), a certificate is immediately dispatched to
the injured party authorizing him to take compensation from the
wrongdoer (by garnishment or attachment) if he refuses to pay.
And every time a person wrongs another in a manner that

10 Once again, I have given Potter’s professor a full-blown normative
commitment to the principle of civil recourse. One could think that tort law
embodies that principle without thinking the principle justified, i.e., without
thinking that victims really do have a moral right to respond to wrongdoing.
See supra, note __.
11 For a crisp statement of civil recourse theory, see Benjamin C. Zipursky,
Civil Recourse, Not Corrective Justice, 91 G
EORGETOWN L.J. 695 (2003).

Harry Potter and the Purposes of Tort Law

13 would lead to equitable relief under tort law, an appropriate
injunction is delivered to the injured party so that he may serve
it on the wrongdoer if he chooses.
Potter’s spell instantaneously determines whether an injured
party has a right to redress from a wrongdoer and provides
them authorization to act if they do. Potter’s professor will be
impressed, but nevertheless might suggest revisions. The spell
could, for example, make it easier for victims to take action
against wrongdoers, if they so choose. For example, when a
victim receives notice that he may take compensation from a
wrongdoer, he might be given an opportunity to exercise the
option such that if he does, the money is automatically
transferred from the wrongdoer’s bank account to his. Potter,
after all, need not leave victims to the navigate civil courts to
collect their judgments any more than he need leave them there
to obtain judgment in the first place.

* * *
Again, we are not concerned with whether Potter has his
spell right. Our question is if Potter stood before us offering to
cast the spell that the best theory of civil recourse would
recommend, should we take him up on it? What, if anything,
would we sacrifice by eliminating tort law in favor of a costless
scheme that authorized those who had be legally wronged to
take civil action against those who injured them, and should we
care about the loss?
To understand civil recourse theory, it is important to keep
straight what its proponents mean when they say that one who
has been legally wronged has a right of action against the
wrongdoer. They do not mean by “right of action” the right to
sue. Rather, they mean the right to act against the wrongdoer
by taking compensation or other damages, or by forcing the
defendant to embark on (or refrain from) a particular course of

Harry Potter and the Purposes of Tort Law

14 conduct.
12 Civil recourse theorists are not interested in lawsuits
themselves; they are interested in lawsuits as a vehicle through
which plaintiffs obtain redress.
13

12 See Zipursky, supra note __, at 739 (“Consider the statement that there is
a right of action for medical malpractice. First, this statement sometimes
asserts that, in light of the rules, norms, and principles of our tort system, a
person is legally entitled to prevail in litigation and win a judgment against
one who committed malpractice against that person. Second, to say that
there is a right of action for a person who has been injured by medical
malpractice is to assert sometimes that in light of the rules, norms, and
principles of our tort system, a person is legally entitled to sue one whom
she can, alleging upon information and belief that a particular person
committed medical malpractice against her. It should be clear that I have
been utilizing the first sense of ‘right of action’ and not the second.”).
Jason Solomon has recently offered a defense of civil recourse theory
that draws on Stephen Darwall’s work on the second-person standpoint in
moral discourse. Solomon has a broader perspective on a victim’s right to
act against a wrongdoer. See Jason Solomon, Equal Accountability
Through Tort Law, unpublished manuscript, at 27 (“The final possibility is
to ‘act against’ the other person or business in some fashion, one way being
to file a lawsuit. I define ‘acting against’ as speech or conduct directed
toward an alleged wrongdoer to express blame or make a demand in
response to being harmed.”). Solomon gives a more prominent role to the
dialogue embedded in tort litigation, and he highlights the defendant’s
“answerability” to the plaintiff. Id., at 40-41. His views are more congenial
to the argument of this paper than other civil recourse theorists’. In fact, I
take Solomon to offer a revision of civil recourse theory more than a
defense of it, as he emphasizes several aspects of tort law that civil recourse
theory traditionally doesn’t, including both tort suits and the capacity of tort
law to do justice. See Section V below [which remains to be written].
13 That is how I read most civil recourse theorists, though there is ambiguity
on this point. For example, John Goldberg says, “the notion of tort as a law
of redress should be distinguished from the notion that alleged victims of
wrongdoings are entitled to a day in court, or must otherwise have their
claims treated and resolved on a highly individualized basis.” The
Constitutional Status of Tort Law: Due Process and the Right to a Law for
the Redress of Wrongs, 115 Y
ALE L.J. 524, 605 (2005). But he also says that
“[t]he core claim of redress theory is that tort law's distinctiveness resides in

Harry Potter and the Purposes of Tort Law

15 Still, civil recourse theorists are attentive to one feature of
tort procedure that economists and corrective justice theorists
are not: Tort law grants plaintiffs a power to pursue remedies; it
does not demand that they do so. In that way, civil recourse
theory takes an important step forward, recognizing that tort
law empowers plaintiffs to hold defendants accountable for
wrongdoing. However, it has too limited a view of the ways in
which tort law empowers plaintiffs to hold defendants
accountable. And it has nothing to say of the value of tort
litigation to defendants. Even in the civil recourse story,
Potter’s spell fails to fully instantiate the system of
interpersonal accountability tort law embodies.
IV. The Point of Procedure
In each iteration of the Harry Potter experiment, we reimagined
tort law to exemplify so far as possible the aims posited by a
leading theory of the institution. The exercise revealed that the
economic, corrective justice, and civil recourse accounts share
something in common. Each treats litigation as merely a means
to tort law’s ends (though, of course, as means to different
ends). Until now, I have simply asserted that tort litigation is
important independent of the results it licenses. The burden of
this section is to establish that there is value in the doing of tort
law, not just in the things that tort law does.


conferring on individuals (and entities) a power to pursue a legal claim
alleging that she (or it) has suffered an injury flowing from a legal wrong to
her by another. How that claim is pursued and resolved is, accordingly, a
matter for the victim to decide. If it is vitally important to her to obtain a
public acknowledgment of wrongdoing from her peers or a presiding
official then she is entitled to ask for a jury trial and pursue the claim to
judgment.” Id. The latter passage seems to imply what the former denies—
that victims are entitled to a day in court, if they demand it.
See also
Zipursky, supra note __, at 739. But see, Solomon, supra note __.

Harry Potter and the Purposes of Tort Law

16 To start, we should get a fix on what tort litigation involves.
John Gardner has characterized lawsuits as “structured
explanatory dialogues in public.”
14 The structure of the
dialogue in a tort suit is familiar. A plaintiff files a complaint
against a defendant. A defendant answers or moves to dismiss.
In answering a complaint, a defendant admits the plaintiff’s
allegations, or denies them. She may raise counterclaims of her
own, which require response. And if at the end of all that, the
plaintiff has stated a claim on which relief can be granted,
discovery begins and the parties trade interrogatories and
subpoenas, take depositions and review documents. If there are
material facts left in dispute at the end of discovery, a trial is
scheduled. At trial, both sides may present their view of the
case, through their own testimony and that of other witnesses.
And when it is all over, a judge or jury pronounces a verdict,
which vindicates the position of one side or the other.
There is nothing special to tort law in these procedures,
both because they are used to resolve all manner of civil dispute
and because they need not be. We might arrange tort litigation
differently, and indeed some jurisdictions have, erecting
hurdles, for example, that plaintiffs in medical malpractice suits
must overcome before filing a complaint, or mandating
mediation prior to trial. Even in those places, however, tort
litigation remains a structured explanatory dialogue that takes
place in public; it is just structured differently. Our question is
whether there is a point to such dialogues that is not
instrumental to the legal consequences that follow from them.
For a first cut at answering the question we might look to
the people who start tort suits. It is tempting to think that what
plaintiffs really want from a lawsuit is compensation, such that
they would be glad to have Potter’s spell (whichever version)

14 John Gardner, The Mark of Responsibility, 23 OXFORD J. LEGAL STUD .
157, 167 (2003).

Harry Potter and the Purposes of Tort Law

17 pay them swiftly and fully for their injuries. I do not dispute
that plaintiffs want compensation. Of course they do, and many
would prefer a system that offers fast compensation to one that
requires them to file a lawsuit to obtain relief. But it is simply
not true that tort plaintiffs seek compensation above all else. In
fact, research on why people sue shows that money is but one
reason, and often not the most important.
In a recent study of the reasons medical malpractice
plaintiffs file suit, 59% mentioned a desire to have the
defendant admit fault or accept responsibility for their injury, a
proportion matched only by those who said they sued to
prevent similar incidents from happening again. Nearly as
many (53%) said they wanted answers. Retribution and
punishment were cited as litigation aims reasonably frequently
(41% and 24% respectively). And money? Forty-one percent
did not mention it at all, 35% said it was of secondary
importance, 18% said it was their primary objective, and only
6% said money alone was their motivation for filing suit.
15
Those results are hardly unique.
16 Studies of plaintiffs in
defamation suits show similar motivations.
17 And a more
general study of why people sue “found almost no support for
the notion that people decide whether to litigate based on some
cost-benefit analysis.”
18

15 Tamara Relis, It’s Not About The Money: A Theory on Misconceptions in
Plaintiffs’ Litigation Aims, 68 U.
PITT . L.R. 701, 723 (2007). 16 [Cite other malpractice studies]. 17 See, e.g., Randall Bezanson, Libel Law and the Realities of Litigation:
Setting the Record Straight, 71 I
OWA L. REV . 226, 227 (“[M]oney seems
rarely to be the reason for suing. Most plaintiffs sue to correct the record
and to get even.”).
18 James B. Stewart, Seeking Justice: People Prone to Sue Have Many
Reasons and Money is but One, W
ALL ST. J. (May 20, 1986) (quoting Susan
Sibley).

Harry Potter and the Purposes of Tort Law

18 The fact that many plaintiffs file suit seeking something
other than money is instructive, but it does not get us very far.
19
We might interpret the fact that plaintiffs often sue for reasons
other than money as a sign that the tort system is broken. We
know that only a small percentage of those with legitimate
claims file suit. If tort litigation was not so arduous, perhaps
more people would seek compensation. Instead, the expense
and hassle involved discourages the majority of people with
valid claims, leaving behind perverse souls who are willing to
pursue non-monetary objectives despite the misery litigation
will cause them and their quarry.
20
I am not prepared to defend tort practice in all of its
particulars; it causes more pain than necessary, to plaintiffs and
defendants alike. But we shouldn’t dismiss plaintiffs’ non-
monetary objectives lightly. Even from a narrow economic
perspective, they are relevant. A full accounting of the tort
system must pay attention to the utility plaintiffs derive from
lawsuits that is not reflected in the damages they obtain. In
addition, if there are demoralization costs to being denied one’s
day in court, those must be factored in as well. All that would
no doubt complicate the calculus involved in determining how
to minimize the sum of the costs of accidents and the cost of
accident prevention, if that’s what we aim to do.
If we broaden our focus to include non-economic concerns,
it is even clearer that plaintiffs’ non-monetary objectives should
be taken seriously. The insight at the core of the corrective
justice account is that tort law can be understood to force
defendants to discharge a moral duty to pay compensation to
repair the wrongful losses their conduct occasions. But
compensation is not the only, and perhaps not even the primary,

19 In part it doesn’t get us very far because the studies are small and suffer
from an obvious limitation—if plaintiffs think it is socially unacceptable to
be motivated by money, they may downplay their interest in compensation.
20 I owe this thought to Becky Eisenberg.

Harry Potter and the Purposes of Tort Law

19 form of redress we expect from those who wrong us. To see
this, take a simple example. Imagine that Smith and Jones have
agreed to meet at noon for lunch. Smith is up late the night
before, and he forgets to set his alarm. He sleeps straight
through his appointment with Jones. When he wakes up shortly
after 1 p.m., what ought Smith to do? Well, it is too late for
Smith to do what he promised—have lunch with Jones at noon.
And it is probably too late for Smith to have lunch with Jones at
all, at least that day. But that does not mean that Smith should
simply roll over and go back to sleep. Even though he cannot
keep his commitment to Jones, it still makes demands on him.
Once Smith realizes what he has done, he ought to call Jones,
explain that he overslept, and apologize for missing lunch.
Failing to do that would compound the wrong.
Perhaps Smith should do more than explain and apologize.
Depending on their relationship and the purpose of their
meeting, it might be appropriate for Smith to offer Jones a
chance to reschedule. We can even imagine odd circumstances
in which monetary compensation would be warranted (perhaps
if Jones had travelled at great expense for the sole purpose of
the meeting). But explanation and apology will be in order,
whether or not some form of compensatory repair is.
Smith’s infraction is trivial, but explanation and apology are
commonly part of making amends for more serious
transgressions, and centrally so. Indeed, one reason to offer
compensation is to signal that proffered explanations and
apologies are genuine. William Ian Miller relays the following
story from a thirteenth century Icelandic saga.
X accidentally hits Y with a pole in a game in which poles were used
to goad horses to fight each other, not whack people. X immediately
calls out to Y, “I am sorry. I didn’t mean to hit you.” Here is the
crucial addendum. “I will prove to you that it was an accident. I will

Harry Potter and the Purposes of Tort Law

20
pay you sixty sheep so that you will not blame me and will
understand that I did not mean it.” 21
Sincerity is here demonstrated at a high price, worth paying
because it is critical that the apology be accepted. Which is not
to say that compensation is never warranted independent of the
credence it lends an apology. In fact, an offer of compensation
helps to establish the sincerity of an apology because it shows
that the wrongdoer is willing to make all the amends warranted
by his action, not just those that come cheaply or are faked
easily.
These examples serve as a reminder of something that
lawyers often forget: Apart from law, explanation and apology
are at least as central to our practice of making amends as
monetary compensation is. That raises a question: If we have a
system that allows victims to demand compensation, why not
give them an opportunity to demand explanation and apology?
Well, it turns out that we do, at least in part. Tort law
empowers plaintiffs to demand explanations. Remember that
more than half the plaintiffs in the study cited above said they
filed suit to get “answers.” Explanation is, of course, not a
remedy in the formal legal sense. One does not pray for it
alongside damages and equitable relief at the end of a
complaint. But in a practical sense, tort litigation often
remedies a defendant’s failure to explain herself, or to do so
satisfactorily. A wrongdoer may ignore her victim, but a
defendant must answer a plaintiff’s complaint. And she must
submit to the plaintiff’s reasonable demands for depositions and
evidence that shed light on her conduct.
Plaintiffs can, of course, extract an explanation from a
defendant without proving that the defendant did anything
wrong. They are typically entitled to an answer and discovery
if they survive a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim.

21 W ILLIAM IAN MILLER , FAKING IT 85 (2003).

Harry Potter and the Purposes of Tort Law

21 But it should not seem odd that a plaintiff obtains the “remedy”
of an explanation without proving that the defendant wronged
her. Our responsibility to explain ourselves to others is not
conditional on our having done something wrong. Take Smith
and Jones again. Suppose that Smith’s wife falls severely ill
the morning he is to meet Jones. Smith takes his wife to the
hospital instead of going to lunch. Smith is fully justified, of
course, but that does not mean that his obligation to meet Jones
for lunch is discharged, just as if he had shown up. Once the
emergency abates, Smith should call Jones and explain his
absence. If he doesn’t and Jones nurses a grudge over the
perceived slight, it is Smith who is to blame. Not for missing
lunch, but for failing to tell Jones why. So too with the law. A
defendant may have a perfectly good justification for his
conduct, or failing that, an adequate excuse. But justifications
and excuses must be pled, outside law and within it.
If tort litigation offers a remedy for a defendant’s failure to
offer satisfactory explanation, what about apology? Victims
are plausibly entitled to apologies every bit as much as they are
entitled to explanations and compensation. But apologies are
not a remedy available in a tort suit, and tort litigation itself
does not remedy the failure of a defendant to apologize, as it
does her failure to explain. This is not surprising, for any
apology secured through litigation would be severely
compromised. The sibling of a child forced to apologize by a
parent knows that the apology is not genuine, and that
diminishes its value.
22 A court-mandated apology would suffer
the same defect, and on top of that, it would come awfully late

22 Which is not to say it has no value. See M ILLER , supra note __, at 87-90
(arguing that forced apologies are valuable to recipients because of the pain
and humiliation involved in giving them).

Harry Potter and the Purposes of Tort Law

22 in the day.
23 Notwithstanding these problems, there is a
movement to incorporate apologies formally into tort practice,
and there is a wealth of research suggesting that when potential
defendants apologize early, they are less likely to be sued.
Apologies are clearly an important form of redress, just not one
that tort law is well-suited to provide.
One suspects that the reason apologies prevent lawsuits is
that a genuine apology acknowledges responsibility. Recall
that the majority of medical malpractice plaintiffs in the study
noted above cited a desire to have the defendant admit fault or
accept responsibility as a motive for filing suit. Of course, tort
law is no better positioned to force people to accept
responsibility than it is to insist on an apology. But tort can
offer a second-best solution. A plaintiff’s verdict assigns
responsibility to the defendant for the plaintiffs injury, giving
her what she has improperly refused to take on her own. Even
if there were no consequences to a court judgment—no
damages or injunctions—it is easy to imagine that many
plaintiffs would still prize the vindication a favorable verdict
provides. This suggests that we should regard verdicts as
another remedy offered by tort suits.
In fact, tort judgments are remedial in two senses. In
addition to assigning responsibility to a defendant who was
refused to accept it, tort judgments have an important social
role. Many torts—especially (but not just) assault, battery, and
defamation—humiliate victims and diminish their social
standing. Tort suits are ways to reclaim respect, if not from the
defendant, then from others.
24 Consider the famous case of

23 See Daniel. W. Shulman, The Role of Apology in Tort Law, 83
J
UDICATURE 180, 186 (2000) (discussing the temporal dimension of
apologies).
24 Not always, of course. You won’t win respect if you make “a federal
case”—or any case—out of a small slight.

Harry Potter and the Purposes of Tort Law

23 Alcorn v. Mitchell.
25 Alcorn sued Mitchell for trespass. “At
the close of trial the court adjourned, and, immediately upon
the adjournment, in the court room, in the presence of a large
number of persons, [Alcorn] deliberately spat in the face of
[Mitchell].”
26 Mitchell then sued Alcorn for battery and was
granted $1000 in “vindictive” damages.
27 On appeal, Alcorn
contended that the damages were excessive. In upholding the
judgment, the Illinois Supreme Court explained:
So long as damages are allowed in any civil case, by way of
punishment or for the sake of example, the present, of all cases,
would seem to be a most fit one for the award of such damages.
The act in question was one of the greatest indignity, highly
provocative of retaliation by force, and the law, as far as it may,
should afford substantial protection against such outrages, in the way
of liberal damages, that the public tranquillity may be preserved by
saving the necessity of resort to personal violence as the only means
of redress.

The delicious part of the case is that Alcorn was the plaintiff in
an action against Mitchell when he spit upon him. Thus, we get
a stark contrast between modes of vengeance. Alcorn sues and
then spits. Mitchell sues over the spit, but his suit is taken by
the court to be a substitute for spit (or worse) of his own. Both
suit and spit are vindictive. No doubt, Mitchell’s quest to
reclaim respect is aided by the damages awarded—$1000 sent a
strong message in 1872.
28 But damages alone don’t do the
trick. The message is not just that Alcorn must pay Mitchell

25 63 Ill. 553 (1872). 26 Id. 27 Id. Today, we would call the damages “punitive.” 28 Today’s equivalent would be about $17,000. See The Inflation
Calculator, available at http://www.westegg.com/inflation/.

Harry Potter and the Purposes of Tort Law

24 $1000, but that he must pay upon Mitchell’s demand as redress
for the wrong.
Civil recourse theorists rightly emphasize that tort law
provides a substitute for unregulated vengeance.
29 But tort law
counts as a substitute for vengeance only because vengeful
motives can be channeled through it. Recall that in the study
above, retribution and punishment were cited as litigation aims
by a substantial portion of plaintiffs (41% and 24%
respectively). Philosophers are wont to distinguish between
retributive and corrective justice, and for a variety of reasons
align tort law with the latter. But it is not hard to see in the
plaintiffs’ desire to punish a drive to get even, and one we can
admire, where a plaintiff is trying to reclaim respect. There is a
world of difference between compensation paid from a state
fund or through Harry Potter’s spell, and compensation paid at
the public demand of a plaintiff, upon an official judgment that
the she is entitled to it. That is an important reason to maintain
tort litigation, even if we might have Potter’s spell instead.
To this point, I have focused on remedies that tort suits
offer plaintiffs—explanation and vindication—beyond the
familiar legal remedies. But potential defendants (all of us,
really) have reason to want a world with tort suits too. That
sounds strange because no one likes to be sued, and even less
do they like the nasty consequences of losing. But, of course,
tortfeasors don’t escape nasty consequences under Harry

29 See Goldberg, supra note __, at 602 (“Vengeance is an unregulated
response by which a victim seeks satisfaction directly and by the means of
her choice. For good reasons, Anglo-American law allows almost no room
for it. Because it is unmediated, vengeance runs high risks of error, overkill,
additional violence, and ongoing feuds, which tend to work against the
resolution of disputes and to undermine civil order. Even when the law
permits self-help—e.g., recapture of chattels—it limits the privilege by
requiring that it be done peaceably. Redress through law, as Locke and
Blackstone understood, is a substitute for vengeance.”)

Harry Potter and the Purposes of Tort Law

25 Potter’s spell; they pay the same damages they would upon
losing a lawsuit. So why, then, would they prefer to suffer
litigation in addition to liability? Well, there are obvious
reasons. Litigation allows defendants to delay or avoid paying
compensation, even when they know they are liable. And it
holds out the possibility that they can reduce payouts by
investing in lawyers, rather than safety. But these are not the
reasons I have in mind. Indeed, a compelling reason to ask
Potter to cast his spell is that wrongdoers will be made to pay
and quickly.
There is a more respectable reason defendants should want
a world with tort suits. John Gardner draws a distinction
between consequential responsibility and basic responsibility.
One is “consequentially responsible if some or all of the
unwelcome moral or legal consequences of some wrong or
mistake . . . are [one’s] to bear.”
30 One has basic responsibility
if one can have and give rational explanations for one’s
actions.
31 Gardner illustrates the difference through the cases
of several victims of domestic violence who killed their
abusers. Each had available a defense of diminished
responsibility, based on medical evidence of “learned
helplessness.” A diminished responsibility defense would
reduce the verdict from murder to manslaughter. Rather than
raise the defense, however, the women sought the benefit of a
different defense—provocation—and their decision posed
serious risk, as it was more difficult to plead and prove. Their
decision was even more striking because a successful
provocation defense would have precisely the same legal
import as one of diminished responsibility—reduction from
murder to manslaughter. If the women were concerned only for
their consequential responsibility, there was no reason to plead

30 John Gardner, The Mark of Responsibility, 23 O XFORD J. LEGAL STUD .
157 (2003). 31 Id.

Harry Potter and the Purposes of Tort Law

26 the riskier defense. But as a matter of basic responsibility, the
defense made all the difference. In pleading learned
helplessness, the women would demean themselves as agents.
In pleading provocation, they were asserting that “[t]here were
reasons . . . to get angry or aggrieved to a murderous extent,
and [that they got] angry or aggrieved for those reasons.”
32 The
women wanted to account for themselves as “fully responsible,
adult, sane, human being[s].”
33 In Gardner’s view, though we
frequently want to avoid consequential responsibility for our
actions, we have a strong interest in being responsible for what
we do in the basic sense.
It is fashionable to think of tort law as a substitute for
regulation, or even as a kind of regulatory regime. But tort law
depends on a richer conception of human agency than
regulation does. To be sure, people react to incentives. And
policymakers can take advantage of our cognitive limitations to
“nudge” us one way or another.
34 When economists look at tort
law, they see agents pushed and pulled by incentives. But tort
doesn’t conceive of us that way; it treats us as responsible
agents in Gardner’s basic sense. In tort suits, we are called to
give accounts of ourselves, as beings with reasons for action,
expected to provide justifications and excuses for what we have
done. Only then do we face consequences. Nobody wants to
be sued. But it is in all of our interests to be recognized as
beings who it is sensible to sue, rather than simply nudge.
That may be reason enough to resist Harry Potter’s spell,
but we can follow this train of thought even further. Not only
does tort law treat us as responsible agents, it helps make us so.
As a causal matter, being held responsible precedes being
responsible. Parents turn their children into responsible agents

32 Id., at 160. 33 Id. 34 See Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein, Nudge: Improving
Decisions about Health, Wealth,, and Happiness (Rev. ed. 2009).

Harry Potter and the Purposes of Tort Law

27 by treating them as if they already are. They demand
explanations and dole out punishments long before children
fully develop the capacity to act on and offer reasons for
action.
35 Parents nudge their children toward responsibility.
Tort law may do the same for adults. As Gardner explains:
[E]ven if for some reason we abolished the whole apparatus of
criminal sentences and civil remedies, we should still think twice
about abolishing . . . trials[.] In fact, one important (although not
sufficient) reason for having the apparatus of criminal sentences and
civil remedies is to motivate the trials themselves. It is to put people
under extra instrumental pressure to give decent public accounts of
themselves, in the knowledge that this will normally help them to
eliminate or reduce the burden of consequential responsibility they
might otherwise bear.
36
In other words, the risk of being held responsible encourages
people to be responsible.
Tort suits express and encourage responsibility in Gardner’s
basic sense. But there is another sense of responsibility in play
in tort suits, which is also key to understanding their value.
Through tort suits, we are held responsible to one another. Tort
scholars have increasingly recognized that lawsuits are means
to call others to account, both literally and figuratively.
37
Literally, because lawsuits are structured dialogues in which
plaintiffs may demand that defendants account for their
behavior. And figuratively, because lawsuits empower
plaintiffs to hold defendants accountable through the imposition
of consequential responsibility—damages and the like.
Litigation is not necessary to accountability in the figurative
sense. On the civil recourse version of Potter’s spell, victims

35 I owe this observation to Don Herzog. 36 Gardner, supra note __ , at 168. 37 See, e.g., Coleman’s new essay; Solomon, supra note __; Hershovitz,
Two Models.

Harry Potter and the Purposes of Tort Law

28 may demand damages or serve injunctions upon receiving
authorization; an administrative system might operate similarly.
But accountability in the literal sense is important too. As we
saw before, plaintiffs are entitled to explanation as much as
compensation. We could, of course, force wrongdoers to
explain themselves in state-initiated proceedings. But there are
reasons to confer on plaintiffs the power to demand account
from those they believe have wronged them, reasons, that is, to
make defendants accountable to plaintiffs. Some are
instrumental—victims are in a better position than the state to
know when a wrongdoer should be called to account, and they
have greater incentive to make it happen. But there is more
than that. Empowering victims to call wrongdoers to account
expresses and gives force to the idea that we occupy a
community of equals, answerable to one another for what we
do.
38
We have now seen several reasons to have tort suits, some
remedial, some expressive. Before we move on, it is worth
saying a few words about the point of conducting tort litigation
in public. Most tort suits are, of course, resolved privately.
They settle long before trial, on terms that are typically
confidential. But they settle only at the joint discretion of the
litigants, who each have the right to insist on a day in court.
The publicity of tort litigation serves many purposes. First,
plaintiffs are not the only important recipients of the

38 Jason Solomon explores this thought at length in Solomon, supra note __.
He draws on Stephen Darwall’s work on the second-person standpoint to
illuminate many aspects of tort law. Darwall’s work is controversial among
philosophers, not least because of his assertion that second-personal reasons
are a special kind of reason, not reducible to reasons that are agent-neutral.
But the insights Solomon gleans from Darwall’s work can be captured in
ways that do not depend on Darwall’s controversial claims about reasons.
For a helpful cautionary note on thinking about responsibility
relationally, outside law and within it, see Gardner, supra note __, at 164-
166.

Harry Potter and the Purposes of Tort Law

29 explanations that defendants proffer. We all have an interest in
hearing those who have been charged with wrongdoing account
for their behavior, and indeed, an interest in knowing of the
allegations in the first place. These interests vary in strength
depending on the wrong and the parties involved, and they may
be outweighed in particular cases by litigants’ interest in
keeping a dispute confidential (though perhaps not as often as
current practice allows). But the provision of a public forum
for tort suits reflects the fact that we all have an interest in how
one another are treated. The public nature of tort suits can
serve interests of litigants as well. We saw above that tort suits
substitute for vengeance, helping victims to reclaim respect and
restore social standing. To achieve those aims, an avenger
must be seen exacting her price.
39 And, on many occasions, the
public nature of tort suits holds out similar promise to
defendants. One who believes she has been accused of
wrongdoing unjustly may challenge a plaintiff to file suit. And
when a suit is filed, a defendant may insist on a public forum to
fight for her reputation.

39 W ILLIAM IAN MILLER , E YE FOR AN EYE 18 (2006) (“At a minimum . . .
you want to make sure you (and others) can see he is humiliated as you were
seen to have been.”)
X