Article Title

The Wreckage of Recklessness

Publication Title

Washington University Law Review


“Recklessness” is one of the oldest concepts in Anglo-American tort law, and it is also one of the most poorly understood. Often identified as a tort falling somewhere between “negligence” and “intentional misconduct,” recklessness has evaded precise judicial interpretation for two hundred years. The Restatement of Torts defines recklessness as conscious disregard of a substantial risk of serious harm, but courts have been unable to interpret consistently the key elements of this definition. This Article suggests that judicial confusion is not simply the product of linguistic imprecision on the part of the American Law Institute (ALI). Rather, the Restatement version of recklessness is inconsistent with the actual behavioral and cognitive processes humans employ in the face of risk and uncertainty. Recent work in behavioral economics and neuroeconomics indicates that individuals fail to process risk in the way the black-letter definition of recklessness presumes, and calls into question the degree to which decisions can easily be classified as “conscious” or “unconscious.” Rather than continue to struggle to add clarity to an already convoluted articulation of doctrine, law reformers should reconceptualize the tort concept of recklessness not in terms of what it is, but in terms of what it does: allow a particular plaintiff to recover for a defendant's carelessness where ordinary negligence doctrine would bar relief.