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Public Expectations and the Evolution of Liability - From A to Z in 3 Easy Steps

Posted 10/1/2021

Common law is not fixed, it evolves!

Tort liability overview

As most of you know, our legal system for civil liability, also know as tort liability (tort is a word derived from French, via Medieval Latin tortum "injustice," tortus "wrung, twisted," and torquere "turn, twist, wring, distort.” Today, a tort, in common law jurisdiction, is a civil wrong that causes a claimant to suffer loss or harm, resulting in legal liability for the person who commits the tortious act. It covers most “wrongs” except breach of contract, which falls into a separate area of law. 

Where does the common law of torts come from? You may have heard me say in the past that common law, often referred to as case law, is the sum total of all decisions previously held by courts hearing the same, or substantially similar, cases in the past. This is also known as the rule of precedent, in which a prior ruling by the same court, or a court of higher jurisdiction up the line, has made a decision that will be applied in future cases brought before it, or any lower courts in its jurisdiction, unless or until an even higher court rules otherwise. Since the U.S. Supreme Court is the highest court in the nation, its rulings set precedent for all lower courts in the Federal system, as do State Supreme Courts for each of their local courts in the State, subject only to the Supreme Court’s rulings.  

Law as a living thing

Accordingly, you can see that the law can change over time, as new rulings set precedents and higher courts support or over-rule lower jurisdictions decisions. Novel facts lead to new law as well. (What’s he talking about?) Here’s an obvious example- there were nearly no traffic regulations in the early 1800’s. The first vehicle accident didn’t occur until 1891 in Ohio City, Ohio. Since then, lots of law has been enacted, and uncounted cases have been tried, resulting in a thicket of case law regarding traffic behavior. 

As technology progresses, public expectations change as well. Think about back-up cameras in vehicles. Only a few years ago, these were expensive options on all but the most costly luxury cars. Today, they are standard on passenger cars and light trucks, mandated in nearly all jurisdictions. Any newish car you ride in you will expect to have a back up camera. Expectations have changed.

AEDs and expectations

And now, here’s the point I have been sneaking up on. AEDs are becoming more common in the public arena. As I have said in the past, (Most recently in 2013, click here for that article.) many public areas have them, including airports, malls and many other buildings open to the public. In addition, they are often found on public transit vehicles including buses and trains, and on emergency vehicles such as ambulances and fire engines. Many of our client utilities have placed AEDs on their crew trucks. Some have AED decals on the trucks to alert of the presence of these potentially lifesaving devices. Over time, the public will come to anticipate their presence on utility trucks, and expect to find them. Soon, although so far not yet, there will be a case against some company for not providing basic equipment to be used to save a life, employee or citizen, and new case law will be made. I believe you should begin now to equip your trucks with these AEDs, train your employees on how to use them, keep them up to date with good batteries and secure mounts, and by doing so, avoid having your utility's name in the law books as the respondent in the groundbreaking suit that makes new law!