Is there ever justification for holding a person liable for damage that he or she does not cause? If so, in what circumstances?
This opinion article will argue that there is indeed justification for holding a person liable for damage that they did not cause. This judgement has been derived from exploring how “damage” can entail different outcomes under different circumstances. In a criminal scenario, for example, “damage” may entail the death of an individual, whilst the same term can entail a minor injury in another scenario. Further, whilst the degree of damage may appear to define whether a person is liable for said damage, what is in question is whether they should be liable for it. This article will explore this question under criminal circumstances, as well as in relation to freedom of speech.
Under criminal circumstances, the damage in question may be the death of an individual, and it can be argued that a person should be held liable for this damage if they have committed manslaughter. For instance, Person A and Person B were quarreling in the streets where Person A initiated the fight. During the quarrel, Person B trips on a rock, falls, hits their head on the ground, and dies. In this case, although Person A committed manslaughter (i.e. did not intentionally kill Person B), Person B would not have died if Person A had not initiated the fight. Therefore, there is reasonable justification for holding Person A liable for the death of Person B as it can be seen that Person B would not have tripped on a rock and fallen if Person A had not begun the fight in the first place. On the other hand, one may argue that Person A should not be held liable for the death of Person B because it was purely Person B’s tripping on a rock and their lack of reflexes that caused their own death. There is also an argument to be made about how Person B could have avoided the conflict with Person A if they had initially chosen to ignore Person A and went on their separate paths. Thus, there may also be some responsibility in Person B for engaging in the quarrel which resulted in their own death. However, under the assumption that there was no choice for Person B but to engage with Person A, it is impossible to ignore the possibility that Person B may have tripped on a rock because Person A had shoved or pushed them, or the scientific proof that the human body runs on so much adrenaline during a street fight, meaning that it may have been inevitable for Person B to lose some of their reflexes during the quarrel. Additionally, it is important to note that manslaughter is when actus reus is identified, but not mens rea. Some may argue that, due to the absence of mens rea (intent to kill) in Person A causing the death of Person B, Person A should be held liable for Person B’s death. However, it is perhaps more sensible to propose that the element of actus reus in itself is a cause of Person B’s death. Thus, Person A should be held liable for Person B’s death despite not initially intending to cause it.
Regarding freedom of speech, it is justified to hold a person liable for damage that they did not cause, especially when considering freedom of speech and expression which may lead to violence or terrorism without directly causing it. In this instance, “damage” is defined as the violence that is provoked by free speech, and which subsequently negatively impacts the public. An example of this can be seen in the J6 Capitol Riot in the US which was clearly a form of damage to both America’s public safety concerns, and democracy. Due to the fact that Former President Trump never explicitly provoked this riot, it can be seen that he was simply exercising his freedom of expression without considering the possibility that his speech may lead to the riot and subsequent public damage. In this light, it is still justified to hold Trump liable for the damage done in the riot as he is essentially the figurehead of his supporters who have traditionally believed his words without question. Despite the fact that Trump did not explicitly order or demand a riot on January 6th, he is still responsible for implying to his supporters that a march or riot was needed at Capitol Hill. The common counterargument to this proposition is that if Trump’s and other far-right-wing views are to be suppressed due to their potential inciting of violence and public damage, then a suppression of all views is necessary as all political views can be seen as radical by anyone, depending on their backgrounds. Thus, society would not have the freedom to express individual concerns or political messages — ultimately restricting public debate on politics, which is detrimental to the functioning of a democratic society. However, what this counterargument fails to address is whether other political views and voices also have the power and hostility in its support base, insofar as examining whether other political views (Biden’s Democrats in America, for example) also contain such a hostile support base which will be so inclined to stage a riot at the Capitol. Furthermore, if freedom of speech should be allowed to entertain all political views, no matter how extreme or inappropriate, society would lack civil and reasoned discussions on political issues, which is also detrimental to the functioning of a democratic society. Thus, it is important to hold one accountable for their speech if, like Trump, they are in a position of leading a hostile support base who will act violently only by inferring one’s speech, and ultimately cause damage to the community and the public.
In conclusion, it can be argued that there is reasonable justification for holding a person liable for damage that they did not cause, especially when considering a criminal circumstance and with respect to freedom of speech which may incite violence.