Daniel Yeager, ‘What is an Accident?’

Who has not heard or deployed the homely, everyday excuse “it was an accident”? How good an excuse is it, anyway? When do accidents get us partially off the hook for what we’ve done, and when do they extenuate our responsibility so fully that we are completely off the hook? Does the term “accidental” (“by accident,” “on accident,” “accidentally”) have point in law or just in life? If it does have point in law, what is its relation to other ascriptions of responsibility such as intentional, reasonable, foreseeable, foreseen, negligent, reckless (or their negations)?

Even a casual attempt at research on point will uncover a vast literature on whether accidents should excuse us from responsibility. This literature, which identifies the differences between compensation and punishment – between civil and criminal law – riffs on whether accidentally caused harm should be responded to differently from intentionally caused harm. While this tort-crime distinction is interesting enough, it occupies me here not at all. It is my purpose not to explore who should pay or be held responsible for accidents, but to explore the grammar of such a plea. The controlling purpose of this Essay therefore is to examine the criteria of accidents. To my surprise, I have found a void in the legal literature, though I am not quite sure why. Is it because everyone already knows what an accident is and so discussing its conditions, criteria, or grammar is obvious – a waste of time? Perhaps, but it is my suspicion that a sustained attempt to decode the meaning and operation of the word “accident” will help us reach discovery or agreement on an important segment of human action. If I am at all successful here, we will have an improved understanding of what we mean when such a homely, everyday excuse is proffered.

Yeager, Daniel B, What is an Accident? (October 27, 2014). 51(3) Criminal Law Bulletin (2015 forthcoming).

First posted 2014-11-06 06:33:49

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