Bruce L. Hay, Christopher Rendall-Jackson & David Rosenberg, Litigating BP's Contribution Claims in Publicly Subsidized Courts: Should Contracting Parties Pay Their Own Way?, 64 Vand. L. Rev. 1919 (2011).
Abstract: In this Article, we focus on an important problem with mass-accident cases, a problem highlighted by the Deepwater Horizon litigation: overuse of courts to enforce contribution claims. These claims seek to allocate liability among the business and governmental entities that contractually participated in the risky venture. Joint and several liability with provision for contribution, for example, enables plaintiffs asserting primary claims to recover all proven damages from a single “deep-pocket” defendant, regardless of that defendant’s own share of legal responsibility for the harm, and then authorizes the defendant to sue other joint venturers to recoup payments in excess of its proportionate share of liability. The key point for our purposes is that contribution claims are entirely creatures of the joint venturers’ own making. Through a contract that establishes the terms of their joint venture relationship (“predispute contract”), the parties can exercise complete control over whether to subject themselves to contribution claims, and, if so, whether to resolve the claims by publicly funded courts or by a privately funded alternative, such as arbitration. Because the parties prosecuting and defending against contribution claims can consume judicial resources largely free of charge, it is likely they will choose to litigate in court to a greater extent than is socially desirable. The specific, socially detrimental result of such distorted litigation incentives is delayed resolution of cases that merit greater priority in gaining access to public judicial resources. Generally, these are cases in which the claimants lacked predispute contractual means to control risk and provide for nonjudicial alternatives, and hence the principal social benefits of deterrence and compensation depend on court-enforced civil liability. We argue that courts can effectively correct the contracting parties’ incentives by charging them for the cost of using the judicial process. Requiring contracting parties to pay their way in court would free up judicial resources to increase the average level of benefits from adjudication. Such a user fee, as we show, can be extended to almost all commercial-contract cases.