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December 2020

Damages for Privileged Harm

by Stephen Yelderman
106 Va. L. Rev. 1569 (2020)

The law often permits us to impose substantial harm on others without incurring liability. Once liability is triggered, compensatory damages require a defendant to pay for the harm caused by his wrongful conduct. Calculating these damages requires consideration of the harm that the defendant could have caused without incurring liability in the first place. This harm is “privileged,” in the sense that the defendant would have been free to impose it in a counterfactual universe in which he complied with the substantive law. Having transgressed that law, he is responsible for damages. But the question is whether these damages should be reduced to account for the harm he could have imposed without owing damages at all.

The treatment of privileged harm is fundamental to the calculation of compensatory damages. Nonetheless, it has received little scholarly attention and has been the subject of conflicting decisions in the courts. In some areas of law, damages are routinely reduced to account for privileged harm; in others, this credit is given only sporadically, or not at all. Critically, there is not yet any sound theoretical explanation for why the rule ought to be different in one set of cases than another.

This Article begins by exploring the effects of crediting or not crediting privileged harm. It then relates the treatment of privileged harm to several well-known questions of remedial design. Finally, it proposes several general principles that a court or policymaker might follow in determining whether to reduce damages to account for privileged harm.