Alumni Short

Valerie Hans Co-Authors Book on the Psychological Basis of Tort LawIthaca, NEW YORK, Feb 22, 2016

As students and colleagues gathered to celebrate Valerie Hans's eighth book, the first wave of praise had already arrived. Co-written with Jennifer K. Robbennolt, The Psychology of Tort Law (NYU Press) was being touted in prepublication press as "accessible," "comprehensive," "cutting edge," "expansive," "fantastic," "fascinating," "highly engaging," "innovative," "inviting," and "vivid."

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That was just the beginning. Opening the discussion in the MacDonald Moot Court Room on February 5, Eduardo Peñalver, the Allan R. Tessler Dean and Professor of Law, quoted from the preface to describe the book as “a groundbreaking view of tort law that stands to transform our understanding of the subject.”

Three panelists followed, each proposing the next volume or two or three that Hans and Robbennolt should write. Catherine M. Sharkey, the Crystal Eastman Professor of Law at New York University, called The Psychology of Tort Law “a real feat, an enormous accomplishment” that infused the canon of tort cases with psychological depth. Tom R. Tyler, the Macklin Fleming Professor of Law and Professor of Psychology at Yale University, talked about how Hans and Robbennolt had brought psychology “into a core area of the law and made it central.” Stewart Schwab, the Jonathan and Ruby Zhu Professor of Law, congratulated Hans and Robbennolt for “systematically examining the psychology of torts in a clear, organized, jargon-free way.”

Then it was the co-authors’ turn. For Hans, the book’s themes took root in 1986, when she was a visiting scholar at Stanford Law School, listening to a lecture on Vosburg v. Putney, a lawsuit between two Wisconsin schoolboys: Is it enough to intentionally engage in an action that harms another? Or do we need to intend the consequences of our actions? How much does context matter?

To Robbennolt, the Alice Curtis Campbell Professor of Law and Psychology at the University of Illinois College of Law, the inspiration for The Psychology of Tort Law reached back to her days as a grad student, during a time when state governments were beginning to cap the punitive damages that could be awarded in torts cases. How do people think about negligence and causation? What’s the purpose of awarding punitive damages?

Together, as psychologists who teach in law schools, they’ve explored the ways attorneys, plaintiffs, defendants, judges, and jurors are influenced by psychological phenomena. They’ve spent years collaborating on this book, taking inspiration from the late Ted Eisenberg, and conducting the empirical research that underpins their argument for tort reform. “We believe this account of the tort system may serve as a corrective to the distorted picture of runaway litigation, unscrupulous plaintiffs, and overly generous judges and juries—the picture generated by special interests that has come to dominate the public discourse,” said Hans. 

“We hope that we have provided insight into all sorts of different questions in tort law, and that we’ve drawn attention to lots of new questions for scholars to explore at the intersection of psychology and torts,” said Robbennolt. “But we’ve really only scratched the surface.”