What is Tort Law?
Tort law has been called the law of wrongful injuries. It is the law that protects and compensates people who have been injured by the negligence, or recklessness, or intentional acts of wrongdoers. And it is the law that protects and compensates people who are injured by unsafe or defective products.
Tort law is one main pillars of the law. Contracts, real property, and criminal law are other main pillars, and there are many smaller subsets of the law as well. But tort law concerns itself with injuries to people. The word tort itself has its roots in French and before that, in Latin, meaning “twisted”, or wrong.
And that notion still applies to tort law – it involves a wrongful injury to someone. That, is, a tort is the invasion of someone’s rights, which results in harm to them.
(Here’s a riddle for you: Who can knowingly, deliberately, and intentionally injure someone, and it is not wrongful? Answer: A surgeon. If she does the right operation, in the right way, on the right patient, with the patients’ permission, she can deliberately injure the patient – like amputate a limb – but the injury is not wrongful.)
Here, though, in tort law, we are concerned with injuries that are wrongful – they have wrongly harmed another person. The wrongfulness should not necessarily be equated with fault, because tort law includes strict (non-fault) liability for harm from defective products and abnormally dangerous activities, even where defendant has committed no wrong and would not be deemed a "wrongdoer." More on this later.
Tort lawsuits are the biggest category of civil litigation, and can encompass a wide range of personal injury cases - however, there are three main types: claims based on intentional acts, negligent or careless acts, and claims based on strict liability.
But first – some terms.
The plaintiff is the person who has been injured, and is the one who is suing.
The defendant is the person who did wrong; also called the wrongdoer, or, if you want to be fancy, the tortfeasor. The defendant is the one being sued.
What is a tort case based on?
There are four things that a plaintiff must prove to win a tort case:
- Breach of duty
- Causation; and
The concept of duty is difficult to define. Sometimes the duty is written down – laws about driving, for example. Thus, every driver has a duty to stop at a stop sign, and failure to do so is a breach of that duty.
Other times, the duty arises from common knowledge about reasonable care under all the circumstances. Waving a golf club around on the course may be okay; waving a golf club around on a crowded street would be a breach of the duty to exercise reasonable care.
Breach of duty
A breach of duty occurs when the wrongdoer fails to comply with what the duty requires. This can be intentional, as when, knowing that it’s wrong, someone hauls off and hits somebody. Or it can be negligent, as when a motorist runs a stop sign, because he didn’t see it.
The plaintiff must prove that his or her injuries and losses were caused by the defendant. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? But what about someone who already had a bad back, then it gets injured in a motor vehicle collision? To what extent were the injuries caused by the defendant; and to what extent were they pre-existing?
Damages is the term used for two things:
1. First, for the injuries and losses suffered by the plaintiff as a result of the defendant. These may include:
Medical bills, past, present and future;
Lost income or wages; past, present and future;
Reduced enjoyment of life’s activities
And even loss of life.
2. The amount of money awarded by the jury, or received in settlement, to compensate the plaintiff for those injuries and losses.
When the court has an interest in deterring future misconduct, the court may award punitive damages in addition to compensatory damages. For example, in a case against a manufacturer for a defectively manufactured product, a court may award punitive damages to compel the manufacturer to ensure more careful production going forward.
What is an intentional tort?
An intentional tort is when an individual or entity purposely engages in conduct that causes injury or damage to another. For example, striking someone in a fight would be consider an intentional act that would fall under the tort of battery; whereas accidentally hitting another person would not qualify as “intentional” because there was no intent to strike the individual (…however, this act may be considered negligent if the person hit was injured).
Can an act be both a tort and a crime?
Yes, indeed. If, for example, someone punches someone else, that would be both a battery – which is an intentional tort; and also could be prosecuted as a crime.
How is tort law different than criminal law?
Tort law is a civil case. Civil means between people. Criminal law is always a branch of the government, representing all of us, the People, against the accused.
And there is another important difference, too. In a criminal case, if the accused is convicted of the crime, he or she could be imprisoned, or even executed. Not so in a tort case. There, the remedy is monetary – money used to compensate the injured plaintiff for his or her injuries and losses. (Note: sometimes a tort case also involves injunctive relief, which means an order from the court directing the wrongdoer to stop whatever he or she is doing).
An example of an intentional tort is the case between Hulk Hogan (real name Terry Bollea) and Gawker Media in 2016. Hogan sued Gawker for the intentional torts of invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress after Gawker obtained and published a videotape sex tape. Hogan was awarded $140 million.
Other examples of Intentional Torts
- False imprisonment
- Intentional infliction of emotional distress
- Trespass (to land and property)
Negligence, at the risk of oversimplifying, is carelessness. It is doing, or failing to do, what a reasonable person, under the circumstances, would have done or not done.
Negligence is by far the most common type of tort.
Unlike intentional torts, negligence cases do not involve deliberate actions, but instead are when an individual or entity is careless and fails to provide a duty owed to another person.
Examples of Negligence Torts
- Slip and fall accidents
- Car accidents
- Truck accidents
- Motorcycle accidents
- Pedestrian accidents
- Bicycle accidents
- Medical malpractice
Last are torts involving strict liability. Strict, or “absolute,” liability applies to cases where responsibility for an injury can be imposed on the wrongdoer without proof of negligence or direct fault. What matters is that an action occurred and resulted in the eventual injury of another person.
Defective product cases are prime examples of when liability is maintained despite intent. In lawsuits such as these, the injured consumer only has to establish that their injuries were directly caused by the product in question in order to have the law on their side. The fact that the company did not “intend” for the consumer to be injured is not a factor.
A manufacturer is strictly liable in tort when an article he places on the market, knowing that it is to be used without inspection for defects, proves to have a defect that causes injury to a human being.
The purpose of such liability is to insure that the costs of injuries resulting from defective products are borne by the manufacturers that put such products on the market rather than by the injured persons who are powerless to protect themselves.
A plaintiff suing under a theory of strict liability will need to show that there was a defect, that the defect actually and proximately caused the plaintiff’s injury, and that the defect made the product unreasonably dangerous. Not only buyers of the product, but also bystanders or guests and others who do not have a direct relationship with the product can sue for strict liability if they are injured by the product.
Examples of Strict Liability Torts
- Defective products (Product Liability)
- Animal attacks (dog bite lawsuits)
- Abnormally dangerous activities
Okay, I guess I understand. What are the benefits of tort law?
Glad you asked. There are three. Three benefits of tort law:
- Compensation to and for the injured plaintiff. The wrongdoer, pays money to fairly compensate the injured plaintiff. This is surely just, and further, means that the innocent plaintiff isn’t forced to absorb the losses, and also that others, such as taxpayers, also do not pay for the wrongdoer’s act.
- Disclosure of wrongdoing. Often, at trial, evidence is produced which shines a light on wrongdoing that had been hidden away. Because trials are open to the press and the public, this is a good way to spread the news, and prevent others from being injured.
- Deterrence. A verdict can send a powerful message to a wrongdoer, so that it (if it’s a corporation) or he or she, stops the behavior, or modifies or recalls the dangerous product. A verdict may do much more than compensate the plaintiff – it may save countless other lives.