Written on May 19, 2008. Written by .

Bugati Veyron (Photo courtesy of Mike Mertz)

Bugati Veyron
If you accidentally damaged this car, should you have to pay for it?
Photo courtesy of Mike Mertz

Recently I was on a run in Bel Air and I noticed there was a car that was worth about an order of magnitude more than my net assets parked on the side of the road. I was barely a foot away from it and a slight misstep could cause a big scratch. I started thinking about what I would do if I did scratch it. Should I offer to pay for the damages? It could cost my whole life savings. Something about that didn’t seem right. I mean, imagine if someone decided to plant their glasses on the sidewalk in front of their house. That would clearly be irresponsible, so it would be ridiculous to pay for their mistake when you step on the glasses. But is it any different when they leave their expensive property in the road? I don’t think there is any real distinction. Everyone should be liable for their own property. The only reason why someone else should have to pay for damage is if they did something illegal to cause that damage, for example trespassing or speeding. So if you accidentally cause damage to some one’s property, I don’t think you should feel any obligation to pay. If you are friends with them, you may want to pay so that your friend won’t get mad at you, but there isn’t an obligation.

Just think what it would mean if you were obligated to pay for accidental damages. Effectively that means that all property is insured by the public. Insurance has value and distributing it communally is like an inverse wealth tax. Everybody pays equally because they have the same chance of accidentally causing damage, but those who have more property benefit more because they are getting more free insurance. I think anyone would agree that taxing the poor to benefit the rich is pretty bad news. So unless some illegal actions occurred, the owner should retain the liability.

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7 Comments so far
  1. mspice May 27, 2008 3:57 pm

    This is an interesting discussion. I tend to agree with you about leaving your property on the street. Where else would these types of arguments apply though? In my apartment? In my office? Please comment!

  2. cspice May 27, 2008 11:31 pm

    I don’t see any reason to make a distinction based on where your property is because in any case you are responsible for protecting it. As for the property in your house, you do take a risk whenever you allow someone in. I should add that I think this argument has practical limitations due to the fact that it is not always clear whether something was an accident. The discussion kind of assumes that everyone agrees on whether it was an accident, which may be the case in some situations and not in others.

  3. mspice May 28, 2008 6:31 pm

    I am not sure I agree with you if someone is on your land. Certainly if someone goes on your land and accidentally damages your car, they should be liable. If you voluntarily let someone on your land though, like a friend, for example, and they damage something, I would tend to think that person should also be liable. Are you basically saying that no one should ever be punished for an accident?

  4. cspice May 28, 2008 7:32 pm

    If someone enters your land without permission, then they are trespassing, which means that they sacrifice their liability-immunity. However, yes I am saying that truly accidental acts should not be punishable. Why? Because an accidental cause has no moral connection to the consequence. For example, a butterfly flapping its wings in China could cause a storm in America that creates a lightning bolt that kills someone. So the butterfly accidentally killed someone, but it would be ridiculous to track down that butterfly and punish it. Situations in which the accident causer is closer to the scene of the accident aren’t different in any relevant way. Accidents are basically acts of nature with an innocent bystander who oftentimes unfairly gets the blame. But I will qualify my argument further by noting the practical limitation that some acts are accidental, but not entirely guilt-free. For example if someone is doing something stupid that obviously increases the probability of damages, but it is still legal. Like if your guests started playing indoor paintball while you were in the bathroom. Then it may be proper to require the guests to pay for their betrayal of the homeowner’s trust. And this is a fairly significant limitation in the real world because there are a lot of cases where the probability of damages is slightly increased, such as eating or talking on a cell phone while driving.

  5. mspice May 28, 2008 8:15 pm

    please comment on an act like involuntary manslaughter

  6. cspice May 29, 2008 6:12 am

    I think manslaughter is just a specific example of the limitation mentioned in my last comment. I do agree that there are good pragmatic arguments for making it punishable. There needs to be a disincentive to prevent people from coming up with methods of murder that look accidental. But the punishment is not based on philosophical reasons and is thus philosophically unjust. If I was sent to prison for something that was completely non-volitional, that would constitute an initiation of force against me and I would be quite upset.

  7. cspice June 4, 2008 12:43 am

    qspice said: Liability – A formula

    I totally agree that it would be nice to have an incentive to be careful, but the question is if it is fair to impose force on the innocent in order to provide that incentive. In qspice’s example, the parent’s were completely innocent bystanders… scratch that, they weren’t even bystanders. Therefore the “punishment” was not punitive at all, it was a sacrifice on the lives of the parents for the benefit of society. I find that unjust. The accident itself was unfair, but at least it wasn’t unjust.

    But that does not mean that everyone can go around risking damage to the property of others arbitrarily. As mentioned in the original article, there should be clear limits to what types of risky behavior are legal or illegal. Then if it turned out the teen was ghostriding the whip when his car ran over the dancer, he could justly be punished.

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