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Tort Law in the Age of Statutes

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ABSTRACT: The common law of torts is widely considered to be in conflict with the modern regulatory state. Tort law interacts with regulations and their enabling statutes in different ways that are fully addressed by the doctrines of negligence per se, the regulatory compliance defense, and statutory preemption. According to a substantial body of scholarship, these three statutorily related doctrines are a muddle, lacking any coherent theory that adequately accounts for the competing institutional concerns of the federal regulatory and state tort systems. The problem resides in a mistaken focus on statutory purpose. Due to the supremacy of legislative law, a statutory purpose to modify tort law would seem to fully determine the relation between the common law of torts and the regulatory state. This conclusion is mistaken, however, explaining why there has been so much confusion and controversy about the matter. Systematic analysis across the doctrines of negligence per se, the regulatory compliance defense, and implied statutory preemption shows that they are instead unified by a single underlying principle: When a statute or administrative regulation is based on a policy decision that is relevant to the resolution of a tort claim, courts will defer to the non-binding legislative policy determination as a matter of common-law discretion. This immanent principle of common-law deference gives much-needed structure to the three statutorily related doctrines, filling the analytic gap created by the overly narrow inquiry into statutory purpose. The legislative intent to modify tort law certainly matters, but the principle of deference provides the primary means by which courts integrate health and safety legislation into the common law of torts, eliminating the purported conflict between tort law and the modern regulatory state.

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