Uncertain causation: two hunters dilemma

Богдан Петрович Карнаух


According to the general principles of tort law, in order to succeed a plaintiff must prove causal nexus between the damage he or she sustained and the actions of a particular defendant. However, in some factual situations this task appears to be impossible, and the question arises whether the plaintiff should be left uncompensated or rather the general rule on proof of causation has to be relaxed. In a groundbreaking case Summers v. Tice (the facts of which are also known as ‘two hunters dilemma’), the Supreme Court of California favored the latter option. The Court shifted the burden of proof and decided that under these exceptional circumstances it is for each of the defendants to absolve himself from liability by providing evidence that he could not had caused the damage. The conclusion of the Court does not cause any doubts. However scholars dispute over the exact explanation of that conclusion, because it is the explanation that is crucial for future similar cases.

The circumstances of the Summers case are thoroughly analyzed by many writers. Some suggest that even the number of defendants matters (supposing thus, that if there were three of them the court would not have reached the same conclusion). On the other hand, the character of their activity is underlined. The proponents of this point of view focus on the fact that the members of hunting party can coordinate their actions and it is this opportunity of coordination that justifies the burden shifting. The common denominator for numerous authors is spotlighting the fact that both hunters are at fault for causing the uncertainty, even though one of them might not be at fault for causing damage. However, in some other situation the uncertainty could have been caused without their fault. The author doubts if in the latter case the defendants should escape liability.

The author offers the following explanation of the two hunters dilemma. Whenever it has been proven that defendants acted negligently subjecting the plaintiff to a certain type of risk and it has been proven that one of them did actually caused plaintiff’s damage, neither of the defendants can absolve himself from liability merely relying on the fact that the damage may have been caused by the other defendant. Otherwise the vicious circle will arise.


causation; uncertain causation; tort; two hunters dilemma


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