Indeterminate Causation and Apportionment of Damages: An Essay on Holtby, Allen, and Fairchild.


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Holtby, Allen and Fairchild are both recent and revolutionary decisions that address an important aspect of the indeterminate causation problem that frequently arises in tort litigation. In Holtby and Allen, the Court of Appeal departed from the traditional binary approach, under which a tort claimant either recovers compensation for his or her entire injury or is altogether denied recovery—depending on whether his or her case against the defendant is more probable than not. Holtby and Allen substituted this approach by the proportionate recovery principle, under which the defendant compensates the claimant for a fraction of his or her injury that represents the defendant's statistical share in that injury. This article analyses this development within the particular domain of indeterminate causation, over which the proportionate recovery principle has been licensed to exercise control. The article claims that this development would constitute an improvement of the law from the perspectives of both optimal deterrence and corrective justice, if the courts properly formulate its scope. First, the proportionate recovery principle needs to be explicitly confined to cases that deal with recurrent wrongs. Second, determination of the defendant's share in the claimant's injury ought to be grounded on the (ex post) probability of causation, rather than the (ex ante) risk of inflicting that injury. Third, judges must not apply unarticulated intuitions in determining the magnitude of the relevant risk or probability: their decisions in that area would be better informed by the statistical principle of ‘insufficient reason’, also known as the ‘indifference principle’. Fourth, courts are yet to relieve the doctrinal tension between the proportionate recovery principle, as recognized in Holtby and Allen, and the previous rejection of that principle by the House of Lords. Subsequently, the article analyses the House of Lords' decision in Fairchild—yet another instance of indeterminate causation in which proportionate recovery is preferable to the ‘all or nothing’ approach. In this case, the House of Lords allowed the claimants full recovery. This holding was grounded in the Law Lords' innovative approach to indeterminate causation, and the article unfolds the problematics of this approach. Finally, the article offers an adoption of yet another legal mechanism—the ‘evidential damage doctrine’—that replaces liability under uncertainty with liability for uncertainty.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)667-702
Number of pages36
JournalOxford Journal of Legal Studies
Issue number4
StatePublished - 1 Dec 2003


  • Actions & defenses (Law)
  • Damages (Law)
  • Causation (Criminal law)
  • Torts
  • Compensation (Law)
  • Uncertainty


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