Liability: The Legal Revolution and Its Consequences

By Peter W. Huber | Go to book overview
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IN 1794, the great French chemist Antoine Lavoisier was led to the Paris guillotine and executed in the prime of his life. "It took but a few seconds to cut off Lavoisier's head," one of his countrymen remarked. "It will take France a century to grow another like it."

The judges who had sentenced and executed the law of contract had not one head to replace, but a million. Every sale of a car, toaster, or cigarette lighter, every hookup of an electric or gas customer, every ticket for an ocean cruise or roller coaster ride, every college admission, hotel room rental, or tonsillectomy, is based on contract. The old law depended on buyer and seller to decide privately beforehand who would pay for what if an accident befell. When the courts abandoned contract, they left a cavernous void that had to be refilled, bucket by bucket, with a new set of public standards, rights, and responsibilities.

When this realization dawned, it came as something of a letdown in legal circles. The attack on contract had been conducted with high optimism. The Founders had announced their early successes as if they were performing on the Pandean pipes, in their own honor, the triumphal march: See the conquering tort law comes; sound the trumpets, beat the drums. Now the conquerors were required to govern, and that was less fun and more difficult. They nevertheless set to work bravely enough, building a new city from the rubble of the old. What emerged from the ruins was a new

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