Liability – legally obligated or accountable; a debt enforceable by civil remedy or criminal punishment

     This page is continued from Civil Law Self-Help Walkthrough >>>> Section 1 – Torts, Breaches of Contract, and Assessing Liability:


n. (18c.)

1. Legal responsibility, either civil or criminal.  the condition of being bound in law and justice to pay an indebtedness or discharge some obligation.  Feil v Coeur D’Alene, 23 Idaho 32, 129 P 643.

The state or condition of a person after he has breached his contract or violated any obligation resting upon him.  Lattin v Gillette, 95 Cal 317 30 P 545.

A word of different meanings, the pertinent one to be gathered from the context in which it appears, construed in the light of surrounding  circumstances.  Evans v Kroh (Ky) 284 SW2d 329, 58 ALR2d 1446.

Sometimes synonymous with “debt.”  Anno: 58 ALR2d 1453.

Within the meaning of a statute of limitations: — under one view, a contract obligation; under another view, responsibility, embracing tort liability as well as contract liability.  34 Am J1st Lim Ac § 94.

As the word appears in a limitation on the creation of debt or liability of a state in excess of a prescribed amount: — a term having special reference to the warrant and legislative authority on which a state contract must rest, and on which alone a public debt must find a sanction in order to obligate the state.  49 Am J1st States § 66. [1]

1. Although broadly speaking “liability,” as used in the law, means legal responsibility, it is a general term whose precise meaning depends upon the context in which it appears. Among its usages are: a debt one is required to pay; an obligation one must discharge; the circumstance one is in when he has breached a contract; a person’s responsibility after she has committed a tort that causes injury It is also accurate to speak of the “criminal liability” of a person who has violated a criminal statute.

2. In everyday speech a burden or an unfavorable situation or circumstance. [2]

1. The quality; state, or condition of being legally obligated or accountable; legal responsibility to another or to society, enforceable by civil remedy or criminal punishment <liability for injuries caused by negligence>. — aka legal liability; subjection; responsibility.

2. A financial or pecuniary obligation in a specified amount; DEBT <tax liability> <assets & liabilities> [3]

     Excerpt from William R. Anson’s Principles of the Law of Contract:

  “The term ‘liability’ is one of the least double signification, in one sense is the synonym of duty, the correlative of right; in this sense it is the opposite e of privilege or liberty. If a duty rests upon a party, society is now commanding performance by him & threatening penalties. In a second sense, the term ‘liability’ is the correlative of power & the opposite of immunity.  In this case society is not yet commanding performance, but it will so command if the possessor of the power does some operative act. If one has a power, the other has a liability.  It would be wise to adopt the second sense exclusively.  Accurate legal thinking is difficult when the fundamental terms have shifting senses.[4]

     Excerpt from John Salmond’s Jurisprudence:

     “Liability or responsibility is the bond of necessity that exists between the wrongdoer & the remedy of the wrong.  This vinculum juris is not one of a mere duty or obligation; it pertains not to the sphere of ought but to that of must.[5]

1. A state’s liability or responsibility that arises even in the absence of any intention or negligence imputable to the state. — aka absolute responsibility. [3]

Legal Terms similar to “Liability”:

culpable – guilty or at fault; often used in cases of breach of duty.

fault – an error or defect of judgment or conduct; deviation from prudence or duty resulting from inattention, incapacity, perversity, bad faith, or mismanagement.

liable – likely to incur a penalty as a result of having commit a civil wrong or breach of contract, answerable by tort.

liability insurance – an insurance policy wherein the company agrees to protect against liability arising from an act or omission of the insured, which causes injury to a third person or to their property.

unjustifiable – legally or morally unacceptable; devoid of any good reason that would provide an excuse or defense.

General Classifications of Types of Liabilities:

civil liability – liability imposed under the civil, as opposed to the criminal, law.

criminal liability – the penalty or forfeiture imposed as punishment for a crime.

liability created by statute – a liability created by statute, as opposed to one created by contract.

Types of Liabilities Associated with Civil Law:

alternative liability – when a plaintiff proves that one of two or more defendants caused harm, but they cannot prove which one, the burden of proof shifts to each defendant.

derivative liability – liability that a person other than the one wronged has a right to redress (i.e. a widow in a wrongful-death action or liability to a corporation in a shareholder’s derivative suit).

vicarious liability – liability that a supervisory party (i.e. an employer or principal) bears for the actionable conduct of a subordinate or associate (i.e. an employee or agent). — aka imputed liability.

  • respondeat superior – the doctrine wherein liability is imposed upon an employer for the acts of its employees committed in the course and scope of their employment, or on a principal for the acts of their agent(s).
  • responsible corporate officer doctrine corporate directors and officers are personally liable for crimes they commit, and may be held liable for employees under their supervision.
  • quasi-tort when one who did not directly commit the wrong is liable, such as an employer for a tort committed by an employee.

Types of Liabilities
Associated with Criminal Law:

accomplice liability – criminal responsibility of one who acts with another before, during, or (in some jurisdictions) after a crime.  18 USCA § 2.

Types of Liabilities Associated with both Civil and Criminal Law:

absolute liability – a type of strict liability based on causation alone, without any other limiting factors. 

aiding-and-abetting liability – civil or criminal liability imposed on one who assists in, facilitates, or promotes the commission of an act that results in harm or loss.

causer liability – civil or criminal liability imposed on the person whose acts resulted in harm or loss.



accrued liability (1877) A debt or obligation that is properly chargeable in a given accounting period but that is not yet paid.

contingent liability(18c) A liability that will occur only if a specific event happens; a liability that depends on the occurrence of a future and uncertain event.  *  In financial statements, contingent liabilities are usually stated in footnotes.

coordinate liability(2003) A common liability shared equally by two or more persons for one debt or sum, discharge of the debt by one giving rise to contribution rights.

corporate liability (1821) Liability incurred by a company as a result of certain acts of its members or officers.

current liability (1889) A business liability that will be paid or otherwise discharged with current assets or by creating other current liabilities within the next year (or operating cycle). — aka short-term debt.


enterprise liability(1941) 1. A type of liability, inspired by workers’ compensation, holding that business enterprises should be responsible for the injuries caused by their activities, regardless of fault or blameworthiness.  See, e. g, Howard C. Klemme, “The Enterprise Theory of Torts,” 47 Colo. L. Rev. 153, 158 (1976) (“In its broadest terms the theory of enterprise liability in torts is that losses to society created or caused by an enterprise or, more precisely, by an activity, ought to be borne by that enterprise or activity.”). 

2. The first collective theory of products liability, making each member of a small industry jointly liable when each is aware of the risks and has jointly controlled those risks. See Hall v. E.1. DuPont De Neumours & Co., 345 F.Supp. 353 (E.D.N.Y. 1972) Cf. market-share liability.

3. Liability imposed on each member of an industry responsible for manufacturing a harmful or defective product, allotted by each manufacturer’s market share of the industry. — aka (in senses 1-3) industry-wide liabilitySee market-share liability

4. Criminal liability imposed o a business (such as a corporation or partnership) for certain offenses, such as public-welfare offenses or offenses for which the legislature specifically intended to impose criminal sanctions.  See Model Penal Code § 2.07See public-welfare offense under OFFENSE (2).

fault liability – (1930) Liability based on some degree of blameworthiness.— aka fault-based liability.  Cf. strict liability.

independent liability (1823) Liability arising from an individual’s actions, unrelated to any other sources of liability.

innkeeper’s liability (1828) The liability of a hotelier for loss of or damage to a guest’s property when the loss is not caused by the guest, an act of nature, or civil unrest.

joint and several liability – (1819) Liability that may e apportioned either among two or more parties or to only one or a few select members of the group, at the adversary’s discretion.  *  Thus, each liable party is individually responsible for the entire obligation, but a paying party may have a right of contribution or indemnity from nonpaying parties. — Abbr. ISL.  See solidary liability.

joint liability (18c) Liability shared by two or more parties. ‘

limited liability(1833) Liability restricted by law or contract; esp., the liability of a company’s owners for nothing more than the capital they have invested in the business.

market-share liability – (1980) Liability that is imposed, usu. severally, on each member of an industry, based on each member’s share of the market or respective percentage of the product that is placed on the market.

official liability.- Liability of an officer or receiver for a breach of contract or a tort committed during the officer’s or receiver’s tenure, but not involving any personal liability.

penal liability(1832) Liability arising from a proceeding intended at least partly to penalize a wrongdoer.  Cf. remedial liability.

personal liability(18c) Liability for which one is personally accountable and for which a wronged party can seek satisfaction out of the wrongdoer’s personal assets.

premises liabilitySee PREMISES LIABILITY.

primary liability(1834) Liability for which one is directly responsible, as opposed to secondary liability.

products liabilitySee PRODUCTS LIABILITY.

remedial liability (1919) Liability arising from a proceeding whose object contains no penal element. 0 The two types of proceedings giving rise to this liability are specific enforcement and restitution.  Cf. penal liability.

secondary liability (1830) Liability that does not arise unless the primarily liable party fails to honor its obligation.

several liability(1819) Liability that is separate and distinct from another’s liability, so that the plaintiff may bring a separate action against one defendant without joining the other liable parties.

shareholder’s liability(1886) 1. The statutory, added, or double liability of a shareholder for a corporation’s debts, despite full payment for the stock. 2. The liability of a shareholder for any unpaid stock listed as {u owned on the stock certificate, usually occurring either when the shareholder agrees to pay full par value {. the stock and obtains the certificate before the stock paid for, or when partially paid-for stock is intentionally issued by a corporation as fully paid, the consideration for it being entirely fictitious. — aka stockholders liability.

solidary liability(1921) Civil law. The liability of any one debtor among two or more join debtors to pay the entire debt if the creditor so chooses La. Civ. Code art. 1794. 0 This is equivalent to joint ant several liability in the common law. — aka liability in solidoSee joint and several liability.

statutory liability(1821) Liability that is created by a statute (or regulation) as opposed to common law.

strict liability(1844) Liability that does not depend on proof of negligence or intent to do harm but that is based instead on a duty to compensate the harms proximately caused by the activity or behavior subject to the liability rule.  *  Prominent examples of strict liability involve the rules governing abnormally dangerous activities and the commercial distribution of defective products. — aka liability without fault. See strict products liability under PRODUCTS LIABILITY.  Cf. absolute liability; fault liability; OUTCOME RESPONSIBILITY.




liability bond. See BOND (2). liability dividend. See scrip dividend under DIVIDEND.

liability in solido. See solidary liability under LIABILITY. liability insurance. See INSURANCE.

liability limit. (1915) Insurance. The maximum amount of coverage that an insurance company will provide on a

single claim under an insurance policy. -Also termed m1: of liability; policy limits.

‘ ‘ty release. See general release under RELEASE (8).



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[1]: Ballantine’s Law Dictionary with Pronunciations
Third Edition
 by James A. Ballantine (James Arthur 1871-1949).  Edited by William S. Anderson.  © 1969 by THE LAWYER’S CO-OPERATIVE PUBLISHING COMPANY.  Library of Congress Catalog Card No. 68-30931

[2]:  Ballantine’s Law Dictionary Legal Assistant Edition
by Jack Ballantine 
(James Arthur 1871-1949).  Doctored by Jack G. Handler, J.D. © 1994 Delmar by Thomson Learning.  ISBN 0-8273-4874-6.

[3]: Black’s Law Dictionary Deluxe Tenth Edition by Henry Campbell Black & Editor in Chief Bryan A. Garner. ISBN: 978-0-314-62130-6

[4]: William R. Anson, Principles of the Law of Contract 9 (Arthur L. Corbin ed., 3d Am. ed. 1919)

[5]: John Salmond’s Jurisprudence 364 (Glanville L. Williams ed., 10th ed. 1947)


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