Robin West, ‘Gatsby and Tort’

The Great Gatsby is filled with potential tort claims, from drunken or reckless driving to assault and battery. In a pivotal passage Nick Carraway, the narrator of The Great Gatsby, judges Daisy and Tom as ‘careless people’, who ‘destroy creatures and leave others to clean up the mess’. The carelessness, negligence, and recklessness portrayed by Fitzgerald’s characters shows an absence of due care, long regarded as the foundation for tort law. Although there are torts, tortfeasors, and tortious behavior aplenty in The Great Gatsby, the novel is void of even a mention of tort law. Why?

The first part of this piece discusses tort law during Gatsby’s decade – the beginning of the ‘era of automobility’ – and explains tort law’s absence from the novel: Tort law is absent from The Great Gatsby, in part, because tort law itself was dysfunctional and could not provide meaningful access to the legal system. Tort victims of automobile accidents were largely unable to access legal avenues, and recovery was hindered by a host of rules, prominently the contributory negligence system. The piece then briefly describes a reform movement, led by progressive legal realists, to replace tort recovery for automobile accidents with a no-fault compensation scheme. One consequence of that movement, I suggest, was the loss of tort law’s traditional ‘moral center’, the idea of the law of torts as a ‘law of wrongs’. The second part of the piece then discusses the costs of this change, politically and conceptually, and briefly defends traditional ‘wrongs’ and ‘justice-based’ tort law against compensation-minded reforms. I conclude that while the moralistic tort law of Gatsby’s era expressed plenty of blame for tortfeasors, it failed to hold them accountable, thus contributing to the death of our understanding of the law of tort as a law of wrongs – and only partly and fitfully replaced by compensation schemes.

West, Robin L, Gatsby and Tort (2015).

First posted 2015-08-21 06:05:49

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