Notice & Comment

A Pitch for “Statutory Torts,” by Matteo Godi

At many law schools, the common law of torts is part of the required first-year curriculum.  Yet today, especially in federal court, most cases invoking tort principles—indeed, a large portion of all civil cases—do not deal with battery, trespass, or products liability.  Instead, they involve statutory torts.  Law schools rarely teach statutory torts, however.  I know of at least one exception:  the seminar I taught at Yale Law School during the spring of 2023.  In this short post, I explain why I believe it is both important and timely for law schools to dedicate standalone courses to these regulatory tools.

What is a “statutory tort”?  A statutory tort is a private cause of action created by statute, which imposes liability for recognized injuries caused either by a statutorily prohibited course of action or by the breach of a statutorily defined duty.  To use different terminology familiar to tort scholars, statutory torts allow Congress to allocate entitlements and set a price for their deprivation; or, as others would put it, they provide injured parties with a mechanism to seek judicial redress for civil wrongs.  For instance, think of Section 1983 or Title VII, or consider the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act and the Federal Employers Liability Act.  What is tort-like about those statutes is that their structure mimics that of a common law tort:  they set a duty or standard of care, and they make a breach of that duty actionable whenever it causes an injury.

Take, for example, Section 1983.  Section 1983 has traditionally allowed scholars and jurists to speak about the Constitution in indirect terms; Section 1983 is a so-called constitutional tort, they say, with the “constitutional” largely overshadowing the “tort.”  That account was helpful in explaining the rise of Section 1983 in the twentieth century.  But the constitutional-tort rubric has distracted from the lessons that can be learned from Section 1983 as regulatory tool—as a tort.  At the culmination of Reconstruction—after trying penal sanctions, administrative processes, and constitutional amendments as mechanisms to regulate human behavior—Congress resorted to one of the oldest regulatory tools of the common law:  tort law.  In hindsight, that was hardly accidental.

As I argue in a working paper (draft available upon request), statutory torts are an incredibly powerful regulatory mechanism.  Studying statutory torts highlights a different side of tort law.  The point of having statutory torts is not simply shifting losses away from those who should not have to bear them or reducing the overall costs of accidents, as the public-law view of tort law argues.  Nor is it merely affording the victims of certain wrongs some recourse against those who wronged them, as private-law theorists contend.  Instead, when Congress enacts a statutory tort, it does so with an eye towards creating a mechanism capable of leveraging private-law tools to set and achieve public-law goals:  eradicating discrimination; protecting the environment; etc.  The creation of such a system is a core, perhaps the core, function of statutory torts.  Statutory torts build a system to shape society’s values.  And they achieve their regulatory goals, quintessentially public ones, through private-law means.  

We live at a time in which, almost every Term, the Supreme Court signals unanimous willingness to interpret statutory torts as torts.  We saw it in Bostock v. Clayton County and Title VII; Comcast Corp. v. National Association of African-American Owned Media and Section 1981; and Health and Hospital Corporation of Marion County v. Talevski and Section 1983.  But neither courts nor scholars have bothered to consider statutory torts as a coherent field.  An obvious example is causation requirements.  Sometimes statutory torts will be interpreted to borrow their causation tests from the common law; other times they will depart from those background principles.  There is little rhyme or reason to it.  The phrase “because of” under one statute will require the standard showing that the challenged conduct was a but-for cause of the injury, while “because of” under a different statute will necessitate proof that the tortfeasor was the but-for cause of the harm (whatever that means).  The fundamental reality remains that, though statutory torts are as varied as common-law torts, they share a common trait:  they are one of the legislature’s best regulatory tools because, unlike criminal law or administrative law, they are capable of achieving specific public-law goals through private-law means.

Tort scholars should seize the opportunity to put forward a coherent theory of statutory torts.  This short blog post is certainly not it.  But here is the pitch I am making:  the effort to study statutory torts ought to start from the ground up, by teaching law students about these ubiquitous regulatory tools.  If this post has piqued any law teacher’s interest, a sample syllabus for a 13-week seminar on “Statutory Torts” (focused on federal statutory torts and black-letter law) is appended below.

Statutory Torts – Syllabus

Week 1 – Introduction 

Week 2 – Suits on Statutes and Implied Private Causes of Action 

  • Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Federal Bureau of Narcotics, 403 U.S. 388 (1971)
  • Egbert v. Boule, 596 U.S. 482 (2022) 
  • Texas & Pacific Railway Co. v. Rigsby, 241 U.S. 33 (1916)
  • Cannon v. University of Chicago, 441 U.S. 677 (1979)
  • Lowe v. General Motors Corp., 624 F.2d 1373 (5th Cir. 1980)
  • Alexander v. Sandoval, 532 U.S. 275 (2001)

Week 3 – Proximate Cause:  Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act 

  • Sedima, S.P.R.L. v. Imrex Co., Inc., 473 U.S. 479 (1985) 
  • Abrahams v. Young & Rubicam, Inc., 79 F.3d 234 (2d Cir. 1996)

Week 4 – Causation:  Federal Employers’ Liability Act 

  • Wilkerson v. McCarthy, 336 U.S. 53, 68-71 (1949) (Douglas, J., concurring)
  • Gallick v. Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Co., 372 U.S. 108 (1963)
  • CSX Transportation, Inc. v. McBride, 564 U.S. 685 (2011) 
  • Metro-North Commuter Railroad Co. v. Buckley, 521 U.S. 424 (1997)

Week 5 – Res Ipsa Loquitur:  Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 

  • Griggs v. Duke Power Co., 401 U.S. 424 (1971)
  • McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973)
  • Wards Cove Packing Co. v. Atonio, 490 U.S. 642 (1989)

Week 6 – But-For Causation: Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 

  • Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 U.S. 228 (1989)
  • Bostock v. Clayton County, 140 S. Ct. 1731 (2018)
  • Ellison v. Brady, 924 F.2d 872 (9th Cir. 1991)
  • Holcomb v. Iona College, 521 F.3d 130 (2d Cir. 2008) 

Week 7 – Causation Generally: ADEA, ADA, and Other Statutory Discrimination Torts 

  • Pacific Shores Properties, LLC v. City of Newport Beach, 730 F.3d 1142 (9th Cir. 2013)
  • Barnes v. Gorman, 536 U.S. 181 (2002)
  • Pelcha v. MW Bancorp, Inc., 988 F.3d 318 (6th Cir. 2021)
  • Natofsky v. City of New York, 921 F.3d 337 (2d Cir. 2019)
  • Cummings v. Premier Rehab Keller, 596 U.S. 212 (2022)

Week 8 – Private Attorneys General:  Endangered Species Act and the Heartbeat Act

  • Babbitt v. Sweet Home Chapter of Communities for a Great Oregon, 515 U.S. 687 (1995)
  • Whole Woman’s Health v. Jackson, 595 U.S. 30 (2021)

Week 9 – Vicarious Liability: Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA)

  • The Western Maid, 257 U.S. 419 (1922)
  • Taber v. Maine, 67 F.3d 1029 (2d Cir. 1995)
  • Logue v. United States, 412 U.S. 521 (1973)
  • Carlson v. Green, 446 U.S. 14 (1980)

Week 10 – Strict Liability:  Section 1983

  • Jamison v. McClendon, 476 F. Supp. 3d 386 (S.D. Miss. 2020)
  • Monroe v. Pape, 365 U.S. 167 (1961)
  • Parratt v. Taylor, 451 U.S. 527, 546-554 (1981) (Powell, J., concurring)
  • Daniels v. Williams, 474 U.S. 327 (1986)
  • Gonzaga University v. Doe, 536 U.S. 273 (2002)

Week 11 – Qualified Immunity

  • Picking v. Pennsylvania Railroad Co., 151 F.2d 240 (3d Cir. 1945)
  • Pierson v. Ray, 386 U.S. 547 (1967) 
  • Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800 (1982)
  • Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223 (2009)
  • Mullenix v. Luna, 577 U.S. 7 (2015)

Week 12 – Federal Preemption 

  • Silkwood v. Kerr-McGee Corp., 464 U.S. 238 (1984)
  • Geier v. American Honda Motor Co., Inc., 529 U.S. 861 (2000)
  • Boyle v. United Technologies Corp., 487 U.S. 500 (1988)
  • Wyeth v. Levine, 555 U.S. 555 (2009)
  • Mutual Pharmaceutical Co., Inc. v. Bartlett, 570 U.S. 472 (2013)

Week 13 – Updating Statutes

  • Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana, 853 F.3d 339, 352-357 (7th Cir. 2017) (Posner, J., concurring)
  • Zarda v. Altitude Express, Inc., 883 F.3d 100, 137-167 (2d Cir. 2018) (Lynch, J., dissenting)

Matteo Godi was a visiting lecturer in law at Yale Law School during the 2021 and 2023 spring semesters. He focuses his practice on appellate litigation.

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