Ascription of Legal Responsibility to Groups in Complex Patterns of Economic Integration

Publication Date01 November 1990
DOIhttp://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-2230.1990.tb01838.x
AuthorHugh Collins
Ascription
of
Legal Responsibility
to
Groups in
Complex Patterns
of
Economic Integration
Hugh
Collins
*
When am I responsible for the acts of another?
As
a general rule, never:
I
am
not responsible
for the deeds of others and deeds that are not my own. Even though these others may
be intimates rather than strangers
-
members of my family, club, union, or community
-
the common law will not ascribe responsibility for their actions to me. The law constructs
an
atomistic conception of social relations, delimiting our legal responsibilities to our own
acts and omissions, absolving us from blame for our brother’s wrongs.
This principle of personal responsibility sometimes appears to admit exceptions. Owner-
ship or control of land may expand my responsibilities to include actions of others on
my land, even trespassers and God.’ Sometimes the common law imposes a duty to
control others, such as a teacher’s duty to keep a toddler out of the road or a prison
authority’s duty to keep the prisoners incarcerated, and failure to perform this duty with
care renders teacher and warder liable for the damage caused.2 And then again, I can be
responsible for the actions of my chattels: my cows eating the neighbour’s corn. Yet these
do not count as proper exceptions to the principle of personal responsibility in the
homocentric eyes of lawyers. My responsibility remains personal; my liability arises from
an omission to act in breach of a personal duty, from a failure to control trespassers, to
restrain the child, to douse the fire started by a celestial thunderbolt; only the measure
of my liability depends upon the acts of others. And as for my cows, why, not even
Puss
counts as a person in (modern) law,
so
the issue of responsibility for the acts of others
does not arise.
But this simple picture described by the principle of personal responsibility must be
coloured by one significant exception, which we may call the principle of group responsi-
bility. Here we enter the realm of the firm: the organisation of productive relations.
A
group of individuals work together to produce commodities and services for sale in the
market. Under the division of labour, each person’s actions contribute towards a common
goal. The team acts as one, though like any team, there are captains exercising authority
and squabbles about the distribution of rewards. But in these circumstances
of
collaboration
and economic integration, to hold each person responsible for only his own actions, as
the principle of personal responsibility requires, makes little sense. The defective product
is the product of the team, and though the defect may spring from one individual’s
carelessness, either in design or execution, it should be the responsibility of the group
to establish an organisation which prevents such defects.
Accordingly, in the context of economic relations involving a division of labour and
vertical integration of production, the common law frames legal responsibility in terms
of the group. If the workers are business partners, then the law holds each partner responsible
for the acts and omissions of the others. Similarly, one person, the owner of the means
of production, often in a corporate form, will be identified as an employer and held
responsible under the principles of vicarious liability for the actions of other workers,
the employees, which cause harm to others. Instead of purely personal responsibility, the
legal principle in the context of productive relations becomes one of the responsibility
of the group, the capital unit, the business, or the firm.
*Brasenose College, Oxford.
Support for this research was provided
by
the American Council of Learned Societies.
1
2
Smith
v
Littlewoods Organisation
Ltd
[1987]
1
AC 241;
Goldman
v
Hargrave
[1967]
1
AC
645.
Carmarthenshire CC
v
Lewis
[I9551 AC 549;
Dorser Yachr Co
Lrd
v
Home Ofice
[1970] AC
1004.
7ke
Modern Law Review
53:6 November 1990 0026-7961
73
1

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