From Volume 79, Number 2 (January 2006)
From 1950 to 1980 the California Supreme Court set as one of its main tasks the project of modernizing negligence law. This program had two main facets. With respect to substantive doctrine, the court sought to purge what it regarded as vestiges of politically regressive common law, particularly limited-duty or “no duty” rules that governed premises liability claims, nonphysical harm claims, and claims alleging nonfeasance. In terms of method, the court adopted and advocated an antiformalist, reductively instrumentalist approach to judicial decisionmaking.
These efforts were thought to be complementary. The view was that nineteenth century negligence doctrine, including duty doctrines, as well as the defenses of assumption of risk and contributory negligence, systematically accorded undue protection to landowners and firms, either out of medieval notions of privilege (in the case of the former) or a pro-entrepreneur, every-man-for-himself ideology (in the case of the latter). Seizing on these doctrines, late nineteenth century judges had been all too prone to issue matter-of-law rulings that, for a given class of negligence claims, either assigned responsibility for victims’ injuries to the fault or choices of victims, or wrote them off as harms not traceable to anyone’s wrong. Antiformalism permitted judges to undermine this deep bias in the law by redefining the question being posed to judges in negligence cases. Thus, nominally legal questions that seemed rather obviously to raise issues of responsibility – questions of duty, fault, assumption of risk, etc. – were “revealed” instead to be open-ended policy questions about appropriate levels of liability: whether it would serve the cause of justice or the common good to leave it open to juries to award damages in the class of cases represented by a given case.