Liability law has two principal objectives: compensation of parties injured in accidents and deterrence of negligent behavior of potential injurers. Considerable evidence, however, suggests that the current liability system in the United States achieves neither. The system has high transaction costs and fails to compensate injured parties appropriately. There is evidence that liability pressure has distorted firms' incentives for innovation. In the health care sector, liability pressure has led to defensive medicine--precautionary treatments with minimal medical benefit administered out of fear of legal liability.
This essay summarizes recent empirical research on the economic effects of liability-reducing reforms to tort law. The strategy of this research is to compare time trends in economic outcomes from states that adopted law reforms with trends in outcomes from states that did not, controlling for other determinants of the outcomes in question. Differences in trends between the two types of states provide an estimate of the effect of the reforms.
In general, this research suggests that reductions in the level of liability improve productive efficiency. But even if these studied reforms improve efficiency, they may not improve the performance of the system in terms of the compensation goal. The essay concludes with a discussion of the potential effects of a wide range of largely untried reforms to the liability system, some advocating radical changes to the allocation of responsibility for accidental injuries, that seek to address both compensation and deterrence goals.