Academic journal article The Cato Journal

The Collateral Source Rule: Statutory Reform and Special Interests

Academic journal article The Cato Journal

The Collateral Source Rule: Statutory Reform and Special Interests

Article excerpt

Paul Rubin (2005) has addressed the evolution of American tort law from a public choice perspective. In contrast to earlier work in law and economics, which generally regarded tort law norms as efficient (Landes and Posner 1987), Rubin relied on more recent work in the field (Epstein 1988, Rubin and Bailey 1994) that regards tort law as being shaped by the special interests of plaintiff and (perhaps to a somewhat lesser extent) defense attorneys. In addition, Rubin envisioned business interests' influence toward tort reform as enhancing efficiency. He ended his article with a call for additional empirical research on modern American tort law from the public choice perspective and indeed suggested a number of specific items and areas of possible fruitful research. The spirit of Rubin's anticipated research program, as well as many of his specific suggestions, can be applied to our survey research findings concerning statutory reform of the collateral source rule.

The Collateral Source Rule

The collateral source rule is a normative rule in the common law (i.e., judge-made law) that applies to recoverable losses in tort actions such as personal injury, wrongful death, mad medical malpractice. Specifically, the rule prohibits jury members from considering any payments to a plaintiff (victim) other than those made by the defendant tortfeasor (injurer). Under the rule, a victim can recover full damages from a tortfeasor even after the victim has already received full compensation for damages from the victim's own insurer for the very same injurious event (assuming, of course, that the victim had not previously by contract subrogated the rights of recovery from tortfeasors to the insurer in consideration of a lower policy premium).

Richard Posner (2007: 199-200) regards the collateral source rule as being an efficient common law norm. The basic argument is that the appearance of double recovery by the victim is very much beside the point whereas the crucial issue is that the full cost of negligent behavior be imposed on tortfeasors if such persons or firms are to get the correct signal concerning the appropriate (i.e., efficient) level of care to be taken. Matters are seemingly a bit trickier, for example, in a case of workplace-induced injury where the injured party's employer has provided the insurance policy under which recovery has been obtained. Some states specifically exclude double recovery in such a situation. Posner deftly sees through this complication, noting that insurance is part of a compensation package, so that in the absence of employer-provided insurance the worker would have negotiated a higher wage. Thus, the insurance, although employer-provided in appearance, is actually paid for by the employee in the form of a lower wage rate than would otherwise be the case. In Posner's view, therefore, exceptions to the ordinary collateral source rule in the circumstance of employer-provided insurance actually decrease efficiency. Posner concedes that exceptions to the rule for certain public-sector benefits, like monies awarded through workers' compensation programs, suitably establish a governmental right to recovery of public funds without adversely affecting efficiency.

Posner's analysis may appear to be open to criticism. For one thing, as noted elsewhere in Posner (2007: 172), but not in his discussion of the collateral source rule, potential victims frequently have a role to play in accident avoidance and must be given correct signals of what constitutes appropriate precautionary behavior. If there were to be double recovery under the collateral source rule, then victims might actually induce accidents, the cost of which would then be only half of what a victim could expect to recover from two sources (namely, the tortfeasor and an insurer).

There are three fallacies embedded within this attempt at criticism. First, and most obvious, the logic of the criticism fails if potential victims have already voluntarily (i. …

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