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Two property owners own land on a mountainside. Property Owner #1's land is upstream from Owner #2 and there is significant, damaging runoff caused by heavy rain from Owner #1's land to Owner #2's land. Is Owner #1 liable for the damages caused to Owner #2's property?

If the answer is yes, then does this also means that a fire started by a lightning strike to House A which then migrates to House B will make the owner of A liable for damages caused to owner B?

asked Feb 22 '12 at 01:29

Humbug's gravatar image

Humbug
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I do not know of anywhere that Ayn Rand discussed such a thing (if anyone does know of such a source, please let me know). Accordingly, I will give you my thoughts on your question, which I believe are integrated with the broader principles of Objectivism, but you will have to take them for what they are worth.

ANSWER

As a general rule, one is not responsible for the results of a force of nature. One can only be responsible for one's own actions, not for things completely out of one's control.

However, if one takes actions that cause damage done by the force of nature to be greater than they otherwise would be, and one's actions are negligent in that respect, then one could be responsible for the damage. Negligence would mean that one knew or should have known that there was a substantial and unjustifiable risk that one's actions would result in the harm.

APPLICATION OF ANSWER TO THE EXAMPLES IN YOUR QUESTION

Obviously more information would be required to determine if the actions of the actors in your examples are negligent. I will therefor make up facts as I go along for the sake of illustration.

Suppose that Property Owner #1 knew that every year during the rainy season the stream that runs through his property swells significantly and covers a portion of his land. Suppose also that Property Owner #1 decides to build his pig-sty right next to the stream on a portion of land that is regularly flooded when the stream swells. The rainy season comes, the filth from the pig-sty is washed down stream and does damage to Property Owner #2's land--damage attributable to the pig-filth that would not have been done by the mere swelling of the stream alone. In that case, Property Owner #1 is responsible for the damage.

For the lightning strike, unless House A is built in some negligent manner that causes the fire to spread when it otherwise wouldn't (or some other sort of harm), then the Owner of A would not be liable for damage to House B. Suppose however that (1) House A is built in a spot that is regularly struck by lightning (the top of a hill surrounded by plains), which A knows, (2) the roof of House A is made of copper and is not electrically insulated, and (3) A stores highly volatile explosives in his attic. You see where this is going? Obviously it is an extreme example. That is why I say the general rule is no liability--you have to work pretty hard to come up with situations where someone could be responsible. But the point is that such situations could arise.

EXPLANATION/JUSTIFICATION OF ANSWER

"Responsibility" is sometimes used to mean different things, so it is important that we are clear about what we are talking about.

In one sense, you are responsible for a result if your actions are a but-for cause of the result ("but-for cause" means the result would not have occurred but for your actions). Thus, in the but-for sense of responsibility, if you push a button that causes an airplane to crash, you are responsible for the airplane crash even if you didn't intend to cause the crash. However, trying to use but-for causation as a legal/moral evaluative standard for responsibility leads to difficulties, because chains of causal links can stretch back from an event in myriad directions and far back in time. For example, the mother of a murderer could be said to be a but-for cause of a murder, because the murder could not have occurred but for her having given birth to the murderer.

Accordingly, when discussing responsibility in the legal/moral context we generally try to limit responsibility to but-for causes that are also culpable. What makes an action culpable is debated by legal theorists. An obvious case of culpability is when someone intends to bring about the negative result (this is generally the province of criminal law). In addition to intentionally caused harm, the law has traditionally (and I think rightly) identified negligent behavior that causes harm as a form of culpable behavior. What exactly is "negligent" behavior is hotly debated, but the general consensus has settled on (I think rightly) a standard of foreseeability--if the harmful result is a foreseeable consequence of your action and you proceed nonetheless (whether you actually intend the result or not) then your action has some culpability. There are obvious difficulties with this approach, however. For example, we could foresee, if we had enough information, that almost every action we take could result in some harm. Furthermore, sometimes the harm, even if foreseen, is so remote (i.e., there is a small probability it will occur), and the benefits of taking the action are so great that it would seem unreasonable not to take the action. Thus we further limit culpability by (1) limiting foreseeability to what a reasonable man in your circumstances would be able to foresee, and (2) limiting culpability to taking unreasonable risks (again judged by the reasonable man standard). All this leads to the standard formulation of negligence: if you knew or should have known that there was a substantial and unjustifiable risk of harm and acted anyway, and your action did in fact cause the harm, then you are negligent (i.e., legally responsible).

In the case of forces of nature, one is not the but-for cause of the force of nature, and thus one cannot be responsible (generally) for the results that flow from the force of nature. However, although one might not be able to change the force of nature itself (it is a metaphysically given fact), one's actions can influence to some degree the results that flow from the event. We can exercise our volition to mitigate or exacerbate the results of a disaster. Thus we can be responsible to some degree for results of a natural disaster to the extent that our actions negligently cause further harm. In such a case we are not responsible for the disaster per se, we are responsible for the increase in harm attributable to our negligent action.

What sorts of facts would be relevant to determining if one's actions were negligent with respect to a natural disaster? If you knew or should have known (foreseeability) that the disaster could occur in your location. How substantial and unjustifiable the risk of the disaster was (would a reasonable man have ignored it?). If you knew or should have known that your actions would increase the damage done in the event the disaster occurred. How substantial and unjustifiable the risk of that harm is. Etc.

There are obvious difficulties with negligence law, but the overarching principle seems sound to me--you should not take actions that result in creating unjustifiable risks of harm to other people, and if you do and they are harmed as a result you should be morally and legally responsible for the harm. Is it difficult to draw a sharp line between justifiable and unjustifiable risks? Yes. Is the "reasonable man" standard a little vague and problematic? Yes. These are issues that still need to be worked out by objectivist thinkers focusing on the philosophy of law.

answered Mar 04 '12 at 14:02

ericmaughan43's gravatar image

ericmaughan43 ♦
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edited Mar 04 '12 at 14:10

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Asked: Feb 22 '12 at 01:29

Seen: 2,289 times

Last updated: Mar 04 '12 at 14:10