Skip to content
Licensed Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter January 10, 2015

The Limits of Probabilistic Causality in Law

  • Ignacio N. Cofone EMAIL logo
From the journal Global Jurist


There is still controversy regarding what criterion to use to evaluate causality. The law & economics literature proposes the use of probabilistic causality as a superior criterion, suggesting the elimination of binary causality criteria. This led to explanations that violate our intuitions, fail to explain judicial decision-making, and are considered unjust. This paper proposes that neither binary nor probabilistic causality can provide a satisfactory answer for all scenarios. Probabilistic causality works well for general causal claims (types of claims centrally involved in rulemaking) while binary criteria perform better for single causal claims (types of claims commonly addressed by courts).


I thank Jennifer Arlen, Pierre Bentata, Pierre Garello, Diego Papayannis, Mario Rizzo, Eduardo Stordeur, Dina Waked and the participants of the Law & Boundaries Conference (Sciences Po, 2014) and of the EMLE Workshop in Law and Economics (Hamburg University, 2013) for helpful comments. All errors remain my own .


Alexander, L. A.1987. Causation and Corrective Justice. Does Tort Law Make Sense?. Law and Philosophy6 (1):123.10.1007/BF00142638Search in Google Scholar

Beale, J.1920. The Proximate Consequence of an Act. Harvard Law Review33:633.10.2307/1327211Search in Google Scholar

Becht, A. C., and F. W.Miller. 1961. The Test of Factual Causation in Negligence and Strict Liability Cases. St. Luis: Washington University Studies.Search in Google Scholar

Ben-Shahar, O.2000. Causation and Foreseeability. In Encyclopedia of Law and Economics, edited by B.Bouckaert and G. DeGeest. Edward Elgar: Cheltenham.Search in Google Scholar

Bentata, P.2013. Environmental Regulation and Civil Liability Under Causal Uncertainty: An Empirical Study of the French Legal System. Review of Law & Economics9 (2):239263.10.1515/rle-2012-0015Search in Google Scholar

Borgo, J.1979. Causal Paradigms in Tort Law. Journal of Legal Studies8 (3):419455.10.1086/467616Search in Google Scholar

Brown, J.1973. Toward an Economic Theory of Liability. Journal of Legal Studies2 (2):323349.10.1086/467501Search in Google Scholar

Bunge, M.1973. A Probabilistic Theory of Causality by P. Suppes. The British Journal of Philosophy of Science24 (4):409410.10.1093/bjps/24.4.409Search in Google Scholar

Bunge, M.2009. Causality and Modern Science, 4th ed. New Jersey: Transaction Publishers.Search in Google Scholar

Burrows, P.1999. A Deferential Role for Efficiency Theory in Analysing Causation-Based Tort Law. European Journal of Law and Economics8:2949.10.1023/A:1008787400656Search in Google Scholar

Calabresi, G.1970. The Costs of Accidents. a Legal and Economic Analysis. New Haven: Yale University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Calabresi, G.1975. Concerning Cause and the Law of Torts: An Essay for Harry Kalven, Jr. University of Chicago Law Review43 (1):69108.10.2307/1599192Search in Google Scholar

Cartwright, N.1979. Causal Laws and Effective Strategies,. Noûs13:419437.10.2307/2215337Search in Google Scholar

Coase, R.1960. The Problem of Social Cost. Journal of Law and Economics3:144.10.1086/466560Search in Google Scholar

Coderch, P. S., and A.Fernández Crende. 2006. “Causalidad y Responsabilidad”, InDret, Paper 329, Barcelona.Search in Google Scholar

Coleman, J. L.1992. Risks and Wrongs. New York: Cambridge University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Cooter, R.1987. Torts as the Union of Liberty and Efficiency: An Essay on Causation. Chicago-Kent Law Review63:523552.Search in Google Scholar

Dewees, D., D.Duff, and M.Trebilcock. 1996. Exploring the Domain of Accident Law. New York: Oxford University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Dworkin, R.1977. Taking Rights Seriously. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Edgerton, H. W.1924. Legal Cause. University of Pennsylvania Law Review72:211243.10.2307/3314478Search in Google Scholar

Eells, E.1991. Probabilistic Causality. New York: Cambridge University Press.10.1017/CBO9780511570667Search in Google Scholar

Epstein, R. A.1973. A Theory of Strict Liability. Journal of Legal Studies2:151204.10.1086/467495Search in Google Scholar

Epstein, R. A.1974. Defenses and Subsequent Pleas in a Theory of Strict Liability. Journal of Legal Studies3:185201.Search in Google Scholar

Epstein, R. A.1987. Causation-in Context: An Afterword. Chicago-Kent Law Review63:653682.Search in Google Scholar

Fumerton, R., and K.Kress. 2001. Causation and the Law: Preemption, Lawful Sufficiency, and Causal Sufficiency. Law & Contemporary Problems64 (4):83105.10.2307/1192292Search in Google Scholar

Geistfeld, M.2006. The Doctrinal Unity of Alternative Liability and Market-Share Liability. University of Pennsylvania Law Review155:447501.10.2307/40041311Search in Google Scholar

Gold, S.1986. Causation in Toxic Torts: Burdens of Proof, Standards of Persuasion, and Statistical Evidence. Yale Law Journal96 (2):376402.10.2307/796423Search in Google Scholar

Good, I. J.1961a. A Causal Calculus I. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science11 (44):305318.10.1093/bjps/XI.44.305Search in Google Scholar

Good, I. J.1961b. A Causal Calculus II. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science12 (45):4351.10.1093/bjps/XII.45.43Search in Google Scholar

Granger, C.1987. Causal Inference. In The New Palgrave: A Dictionary of Economics, edited by J.Eatwell, M.Milgate, and P.Newman. London: The McMillan Press Limited.10.1057/978-1-349-95121-5_688-1Search in Google Scholar

Green, L.1929. Are There Dependable Rules of Causation?. University of Pennsylvania Law Review and American Law Register77 (5):601628.10.2307/3307290Search in Google Scholar

Hart, H. L. A., and T.Honoré. 1985. Causation in the Law, Second Edition. New York: Oxford Clarendon Press.10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198254744.001.0001Search in Google Scholar

Hausman, D. M.2009. Laws, Causation and Economic Methodology. In The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Economics, edited by H.Kincaid, and D.Ross. New York: Oxford University Press.10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195189254.003.0002Search in Google Scholar

Hellner, J.2000. Causality and Causation in Law. Scandinavian Studies in Law40:111134.Search in Google Scholar

Hitchcock, C.1995. The Mishap at Reichenbach Fall: Singular Vs. General Causation. Philosophical Studies78:257291.10.1007/BF00990114Search in Google Scholar

Hitchcock, C.2010. “Probabilistic Causation” in E. N.Zalta (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Available at (last visit 17/06/2012).Search in Google Scholar

Holland, P. W.1986. Statistics and Causal Inference. Journal of the American Statistical Association81:396.10.2307/2289069Search in Google Scholar

Honoré, T.1983. Causation and Remoteness of Damages. International Encyclopedia of Comparative LawXI:1).Search in Google Scholar

Kahan, M.1989. Causation and Incentives to Take Care Under the Negligence Rule. Journal of Legal Studies18:427447.10.1086/468154Search in Google Scholar

Kaye, D.1982. The Limits of the Preponderance of the Evidence Standard: Justifiably Naked Statistical Evidence and Multiple Causation. American Bar Foundation Research Journal7 (2):487516.10.1111/j.1747-4469.1982.tb00464.xSearch in Google Scholar

Kaye, D., and M.Aickin. 1984. A Comment on Causal Apportionment. Journal of Legal Studies13:191208.10.1086/467739Search in Google Scholar

Kelman, M.1987. The Necessary Myth of Objective Causation Judgments in Liberal Political Theory. Chicago-Kent Law Review63:579638.Search in Google Scholar

King, J. H.1981. Causation, Valuation, and Chance in Personal Injury Torts Involving Preexisting Conditions and Future Consequences. Yale Law Journal90:13761396.10.2307/795883Search in Google Scholar

Krecke, E.1996. The Nihilism of the Economic Analysis of Law. Journal Des Economistes Et Des Etudes Humaines3:1937.Search in Google Scholar

Kruskal, W.1986. Terms of Reference: Singular Confusion About Multiple Causation. Journal of Legal Studies15 (2):427436.10.1086/467821Search in Google Scholar

Landes, W. M., and R. A.Posner. 1981. The Positive Economic Theory of Tort Law. Georgia Law Review15:851924.Search in Google Scholar

Landes, W. M., and R. A.Posner. 1983. Causation in Tort Law: An Economic Approach. Journal of Legal Studies12:109134.10.1086/467716Search in Google Scholar

Landes, W. M., and R. A.Posner. 1987. The Economic Structure of Tort Law. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.10.4159/harvard.9780674864030Search in Google Scholar

Levmore, S.1990. Probabilistic Recoveries, Restitution, and Recurring Wrongs. Journal of Legal Studies19:691726.10.1086/467867Search in Google Scholar

Lewis, D.1973. Causation. Journal of Philosophy70:556567.10.2307/2025310Search in Google Scholar

Lewis, D.2000. Causation as Influence. Journal of Philosophy97:182197.10.2307/2678389Search in Google Scholar

Lipton, P.1992. Causation Outside the Law. In Jurisprudence: Cambridge Essays, edited by H.Gross, and R.Harrison, 127148. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Mackie, J. L.1965. Causes and Conditions. American Philosophical Quarterly2 (4):245264.Search in Google Scholar

Mackie, J. L.1974. The Cement of the Universe: A Study of Causation. New York: Oxford Clarendon Press.Search in Google Scholar

Malone, W. S.1956. Ruminations on Cause-in Fact. Stanford Law Review9 (1):6069.10.2307/1226919Search in Google Scholar

Marino, A. M.1991. Market Share Liability and Economic Efficiency. Southern Economic Journal57 (3):667675.10.2307/1059781Search in Google Scholar

McCloskey, D.2005. The Trouble with Mathematics and Statistics in Economics,. History of Economic Ideas13 (3):85102.Search in Google Scholar

McLaughlin, J. A.1925. Proximate Cause. Harvard Law Review39:149.10.2307/1328484Search in Google Scholar

Menzies, P.1996. Probabilistic Causation and the Pre-Emption Problem”, Mind. New Series105 (417):85117.10.1093/mind/105.417.85Search in Google Scholar

Miceli, T. J.1996. Cause in Fact, Proximate Cause, and the Hand Rule: Extending Grady’s Positive Economic Theory of Negligence. International Review of Law and Economics16:473.Search in Google Scholar

Miceli, T. J., and K.Segerson. 2007. Punishing the Innocent Along with the Guilty: The Economics of Individual Versus Group Punishment. Journal of Legal Studies36 (1):81106.10.1086/509274Search in Google Scholar

Moore, M.1985. Causation and the Excuses. California Law Review73 (4):10911149.10.2307/3480429Search in Google Scholar

Moore, M.1987. Thomson’s Preliminaries About Causation and Rights. Chicago-Kent Law Review63:497521.Search in Google Scholar

Moore, M.2000. The Metaphysics of Causal Intervention. California Law Review88 (3):827877.10.2307/3481196Search in Google Scholar

Moore, M.2009. Causation and Responsibility: An Essay in Law, Morals and Metaphysics. New York: Oxford University Press.10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199256860.001.0001Search in Google Scholar

Otte, R.1981. A Critique of Suppes’ Theory of Probabilistic Causality. Synthese48 (2):167189.10.1007/BF01063885Search in Google Scholar

Papineau, D.1985. Probabilities and Causes. Journal of Philosophy82 (2):5774.10.2307/2026555Search in Google Scholar

Parascandola, M.1996. Evidence and Association: Epistemic Confusion in Toxic Tort Law. Philosophy of Science63:168176.10.1086/289949Search in Google Scholar

Perry, S. R.1992. The Moral Foundations of Tort Law. Iowa Law Review77:449514.Search in Google Scholar

Polinsky, A. M., and S.Shavell. 2000. The Fairness of Sanctions: Some Implications for Optimal Enforcement Policy,. American Law and Economics Review2:223237.10.1093/aler/2.2.223Search in Google Scholar

Posner, R. A.1981. The Concept of Corrective Justice in Recent Theories of Tort Law. Journal of Legal Studies10 (1):187206.10.1086/467676Search in Google Scholar

Posner, R. A.1986. Economic Analysis of Law. Boston, MA: Little, Brown & Company.Search in Google Scholar

Rizzo, M. J.1987. Foreword: Fundamentals of Causation. Chicago-Kent Law Review63:397406.Search in Google Scholar

Rizzo, M. J.1996. The Genetic-Causal Tradition and Modern Economic Theory. Kyklos49 (3):273317.10.1111/j.1467-6435.1996.tb01398.xSearch in Google Scholar

Rizzo, M. J., and F. S.Arnold. 1980. Causal Apportionment in Tort Law: An Economic Theory. Columbia Law Review85:13991429.10.2307/1122170Search in Google Scholar

Rizzo, M. J., and F. S.Arnold. 1986. Causal Apportionment: Reply to the Critics. Journal of Legal Studies15:219226.10.1086/467811Search in Google Scholar

Robertson, D. W.1997. The Common Sense of Cause in Fact. Texas Law Review75:17651800.Search in Google Scholar

Robinson, G. O.1982. Multiple Causation in Tort Law: Reflections on the DES Cases. Virginia Law Review68 (4):713770.10.2307/1072725Search in Google Scholar

Robinson, G. O.1985. Probabilistic Causality and Compensation for Tortious Risk. Journal of Legal Studies14:779798.10.1086/467799Search in Google Scholar

Rosenberg, D.1984. The Causal Connection in Mass Exposure Cases: A ‘Public Law’ Vision of the Tort System. Harvard Law Review97:849929.10.2307/1341021Search in Google Scholar

Russell, G.2008. Truth in Virtue of Meaning: A Defense of the Analytic/Synthetic Distinction. New York: Oxford University Press.10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199232192.001.0001Search in Google Scholar

Salmon, W. C1980. Probabilistic Causality. Pacific Philosophical Quarterly61:5074.10.1111/j.1468-0114.1980.tb00004.xSearch in Google Scholar

Sanders, J., M. B.Kugler, J. M.Darley, and L. M.Solan. 2014. Must Torts Be Wrongs? an Empirical Perspective. Wake Forest Law Review49:1235.Search in Google Scholar

Schaffer, J.2000. Overlappings: Probability-Raising Without Causation. Australasian Journal of Philosophy78 (1):4046.10.1080/00048400012349331Search in Google Scholar

Schaffer, J.2004. Causes Need Not Be Physically Connected to Their Effects: The Case for Negative Causation. In Contemporary Debates in Philosophy of Science, edited by C.Hitchcock. Basil: Blackwell.Search in Google Scholar

Schultz, M.2001. Further Ruminations on Cause-in-Fact. Scandinavian Studies in Law41:467501.Search in Google Scholar

Schwartz, A.1987. Causation in Private Tort Law: A Comment on Kelman. Chicago-Kent Law Review63:639652.Search in Google Scholar

Shavell, S.1980. An Analysis of Causation and the Scope of Liability in the Law of Torts. Journal of Legal Studies9:463516.10.1086/467650Search in Google Scholar

Shavell, S.1985. Uncertainty Over Causation and the Determination of Civil Liability. Journal of Law and Economics28:587609.10.1086/467102Search in Google Scholar

Shavell, S.1998. Causation and Tort Liability. In The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics and the Law, edited by P.Newman. London: McMillan Reference Limited.Search in Google Scholar

Shavell, S. 2004. Foundations of Economic Analysis of Law. London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.10.4159/9780674043497Search in Google Scholar

Singh, R. 2002. “Causation, Economic Efficiency and the Law of Torts”, Centre for Development Economics, Working Paper No. 102.Search in Google Scholar

Singh, R. 2007. ‘Causation-Consistent’ Liability, Economic Efficiency and the Law of Torts. International Review of Law and Economics27:179203.10.1016/j.irle.2007.06.007Search in Google Scholar

Skyrms, B.1980. Causal Necessity. New Haven: Yale University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Smith, J. 1911. Legal Cause in Actions of Tort. Harvard Law Review25:223.10.2307/1324910Search in Google Scholar

Sober, E. 1985. Two Concepts of Cause. In PSA 1984, Vol. II, edited by P.Asquith, and P.Kitcher, 405424. East Lansing, MI: Philosophy of Science Association.10.1086/psaprocbienmeetp.1984.2.192518Search in Google Scholar

Spector, H. 2011. The MMTS Analysis of Causation. In Perspectives on Causation, edited by R. Goldberg. Oxford: Hart Publishing.Search in Google Scholar

Stapleton, J.2008. Choosing What We Mean with ‘Causation’ in the Law. Missouri Law Review73 (2):433480.Search in Google Scholar

Suppes, P. 1970. A Probabilistic Theory of Causality. Amsterdam: North-Holland Publishing.Search in Google Scholar

Supreme Court of California, “Sindell v. Abbott Laboratories”, 26 Cal. 3d 588.Search in Google Scholar

Supreme Court of California.1948. “Summers v. Tice”, 33 Cal. 2d 80, 199 P.2d 1.Search in Google Scholar

Supreme Court of Tennessee.1898. “Weeks v. McNulty”, 101 Tenn. 495, 48 S.W. 809.Search in Google Scholar

Terry, H. T. 1915. Proximate Consequences in the Law of Torts. Harvard Law Review28:10.10.2307/1326505Search in Google Scholar

Thomson, J. J. 1984. Remarks on Causation and Liability. Philosophy & Public Affairs13 (101):127133.Search in Google Scholar

Thomson, J. J.1987a. Causality and Rights: Some Preliminaries. Chicago-Kent Law Review63:471496.Search in Google Scholar

Thomson, J. J. 1987b. The Decline of Cause. Georgetown Law Review76:137150.Search in Google Scholar

United States Circuit Court of Appeals, Second Circuit, “United States et al. v. Carroll Towing Co., Inc., et al.”, 159 F.2d 169.Search in Google Scholar

Van Wijck, P. V., and J. K.Winters. 2001. The Principle of Full Compensation in Tort Law. European Journal of Law and Economics11 (3):319332.10.1023/A:1011260419168Search in Google Scholar

Weinrib, E. J. 1983. Toward a Moral Theory of Negligence Law. Law & Philosophy2:3748.10.1007/BF00145312Search in Google Scholar

Weinrib, E. J.1992. Corrective Justice. Iowa Law Review77:403425.Search in Google Scholar

Woodward, J. 1984. A Theory of Singular Causal Explanation,. Erkenntnis21:231262.10.1007/BF00169275Search in Google Scholar

Woodward, J. 2003. Making Things Happen: A Theory of Causal Explanation. New York: Oxford University Press.10.1093/0195155270.001.0001Search in Google Scholar

Wright (Von)G. H. 1971. Explanation and Understanding. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Wright (Von)G. H. 1975. Causality and Determinism. New York: Columbia University Press.10.7312/wrig90574Search in Google Scholar

Wright, R. W.1985a. Actual Causation Vs. Probabilistic Linkage: The Bane of Economic Analysis. Journal of Legal Studies14:435456.10.1086/467780Search in Google Scholar

Wright, R. W.1985b. Causation in Tort Law. California Law Review73:1735.10.2307/3480373Search in Google Scholar

Wright, R. W.1987. The Efficient Theory of Causation and Responsibility: Unscientific Formalism and False Semantics. Chicago-Kent Law Review63:553578.Search in Google Scholar

Wright, R. W.1988. Causation, Responsibility, Risk, Probability, Naked Statistics, and Proof: Pruning the Bramble Bush by Clarifying the Concepts. Iowa Law Review73:10011077.Search in Google Scholar

Wright, R. W. 1992. Substantive Corrective Justice. Iowa Law Review77:625711.Search in Google Scholar

Wright, R. W. 1995. The Standard of Care in Negligence Law. In Philosophical Foundations of Tort Law, edited byD.Owen. New York: Oxford Clarendon Press.Search in Google Scholar

Wright, R. W.2008. Liability for Possible Wrongs: Causation, Statistical Probability and the Burden of Proof, 41 Loyola L.A. Law Review 1295.Search in Google Scholar

Wright, R. W. 2011. Proving Causation: Probability Vs. Belief. In Perspectives on Causation, edited by R.Goldberg. Oxford: Hart Publishing.Search in Google Scholar

Yablo, S.2002. De Facto Dependence,. Journal of Philosophy99 (3):130148.10.2307/3655640Search in Google Scholar

Young, R., M.Faure, and P.Fenn. 2004. Causality and Causation in Tort Law. International Review of Law and Economics24:507523.10.1016/j.irle.2005.01.007Search in Google Scholar


Erasmus University Rotterdam (European Doctorate in Law and Economics) and University of Buenos Aires. The paper was presented at the Law & Boundaries Conference (Sciences Po, 2014) and the EMLE Workshop in Law and Economics (Hamburg University, 2013), where it received useful feedback.

Published Online: 2015-1-10
Published in Print: 2015-1-1

©2015 by De Gruyter

Downloaded on 25.2.2024 from
Scroll to top button