A huge number of tort suits in the United States are captioned Plaintiff & Spouse v. Defendant. Why? The answer is at once completely obvious and deeply puzzling. The plaintiff’s spouse is part of the case because, in almost every U.S. state, she has a claim against the defendant too—not for battery or negligence, as her spouse might, but for the loss of her spouse’s “consortium.” And yet, it’s not at all clear why a spouse should have a tort claim of this kind. A plaintiff who sues in tort, Judge Cardozo once explained, must always identify “ ‘a wrong’ to herself; i.e., a violation of her own right.” By this standard, however, a spouse’s consortium claim seems strange. The defendant violated her injured spouse’s rights, perhaps, but is it right to say the defendant violated hers too? At one point, tort law took the view that a husband had property rights in his wife, so that a wrong to his wife was a wrong to him too.
That can’t be the right answer today, however, and it’s not clear whether there’s a more egalitarian rights-based answer to give. For that reason, rights-based theories of tort law tend to say that consortium claims have no proper place in a law of private wrongs, and critics of those theories can cite consortium claims as evidence that tort isn’t (all) about rights in the first place. In this Article, I suggest that both conclusions miss the mark. Consortium claims may have a natural place in a rights-based picture of tort law, so long as we have the right picture of rights (and rightsholders) in view. Partners in marriage-like relationships act together to construct a shared life, and that puts them in a position to hold joint claims against certain interferences with that life. Consortium suits make more sense, I propose, if we see them as a response to the violation of these joint claims—as a means to redress what partners in marriage-like relationships would rightly regard as “wrongs to us.”