This Article begins with the canonical law-and-economics account of tort law as a regulatory tool, that is, as a means of giving regulated parties the optimal ex ante incentives to minimize the costs of accidents. Building on this regulatory picture of tort law, the Article asks the question how tort law should coordinate with already existing non-tort systems of regulation. Thus, for example, if a particular activity is already subject to extensive agency-based regulation, regulation that already addresses the negative externalities or other market failures associated with the activity, what regulatory role remains for tort law? Should tort law in such cases be displaced or preempted? The answer is: It depends. Sometimes, even in the presence of overlapping non-tort regulation, there is a regulatory role that tort law can play, sometimes not.

For one example, if the non-tort regulatory standard is already “fully optimizing,” in the sense that the regulatory standard (a) sets both an efficient floor and an efficient ceiling of conduct and (b) is fully enforced by the regulatory authority, then tort law arguably should be fully displaced in the sense that no tort remedy should be available for harms caused by such an activity. If, however, the regulatory standard is only “partially optimizing” (for example, it is only an efficient minimum or efficient floor or it is only partially enforced), then tort law continues to have an important regulatory role to play.

This framework can be used to explain such tort doctrines as negligence per se and suggests circumstances in which there should be a corollary doctrine of non-negligence per se. It also helps to explain recent federal preemption cases involving overlapping tort and regulatory standards. Finally, the framework produces insights for how tort law might efficiently be adjusted to coordinate with overlapping social norms, which are also considered within the L&E tradition to be a form of regulation.



Date of this Version

July 2009

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