Civil tort law is a comprehensive area within the legal system that addresses wrongdoing by one person against another.
A tort constitutes a civil wrong, distinct from a breach of contract, which results in harm or loss. The person or entity responsible for the wrongdoing may be held accountable for the damage or loss they have caused.
The primary objectives of tort law are to compensate victims and deter or discourage wrongful actions. Through tort law, injured parties can obtain monetary damages for foreseeable harm caused by the other party’s breach of their duty of care. The duty of care standard is determined by considering the actions of a reasonable person in a similar situation.
Wrongdoings that fall under civil tort law include causing physical or economic injury, inflicting pain and suffering, violating privacy, property, or constitutional rights, and damaging one’s reputation.
How Are Torts Classified?
Torts are generally categorized as intentional, unintentional, or strict liability torts.
Intentional torts can be further divided into torts against persons and torts against property. These torts involve deliberate wrongful acts. The plaintiff need not prove that the defendant intended to cause harm; rather, the defendant’s intentional action, which resulted in harm to the plaintiff, is sufficient.
Intentional Torts Against Persons
These torts harm individuals, either physically or economically. Many intentional torts also qualify as crimes, which means a person can be convicted of a crime and held liable for damages to the victim. Examples of intentional torts against persons include assault, battery, false imprisonment, defamation, libel, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Intentional Torts Against Property
These torts involve property, though not necessarily property damage. For instance, trespassing on land could financially harm the plaintiff without causing any physical damage to the property.
Examples of intentional torts against property include:
- Trespass to land;
- Trespass to chattels (intentional interference with personal property possession rights);
- Conversion (extensive interference with personal property possession rights warranting liability for the property’s full value).
Unintentional torts typically involve negligence claims. An unintentional tort is essentially an accident that caused harm to another person due to the negligent party breaching their duty to act as a reasonable person would in a similar situation.
Strict Liability Torts
In strict liability torts, the plaintiff does not need to prove that the defendant breached a standard of care. Strict liability generally applies in cases involving inherently dangerous activities, making the defendant liable simply because they were engaged in a dangerous activity that resulted in harm. Examples include using explosives, transporting toxic chemicals, and animal attacks (e.g., dog bite claims).
Product liability torts also fall under strict liability. In such cases, the plaintiff only needs to demonstrate that the product was defective and caused injury without proving negligence or intentional wrongdoing by the manufacturer.
What are Some Examples of Torts?
Civil tort law encompasses a wide range of wrongs and harmful actions. Some common civil torts include:
- Civil assault or civil battery, depending on the case specifics
- Intentional infliction of emotional distress
- False imprisonment
- Trespass to land (real property) or trespass to chattels (personal property)
- Products liability
- Wrongful death
- Invasion of privacy
Negligence claims are the most prevalent type of tort lawsuit, requiring proof that the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care, breached that duty, and consequently caused the plaintiff harm or injury.
Common negligence tort examples include:
- Slip and fall accidents
- Car, truck, or motorcycle accidents
- Bicycle accidents
- Medical malpractice
Are There Any Defenses to Civil Torts?
Defendants in civil tort lawsuits have several defenses at their disposal, depending on the type of tort they are accused of committing.
This defense asserts that the plaintiff granted the defendant permission to engage in the act in question. For this defense to be valid, the plaintiff must have had the capacity to consent, meaning they could not have been underage, under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or possessing a diminished mental capacity.
Self-Defense, Defense of Others, or Defense of Property
A defendant could use one of these defenses if they acted in response to an imminent threat to themselves, another person, or their property.
Necessity is a defense for intentional torts involving property. For instance, necessity might be a valid defense for trespassing if the defendant entered the plaintiff’s property because someone’s life was at risk and required assistance.
By using this defense, the defendant argues that the plaintiff’s negligence also contributed to their injuries and that they could have avoided harm if they had been more cautious. In some states, if the plaintiff is found to be at fault, the defendant is not liable, even if they played a role in the plaintiff’s injury.
Similar to contributory negligence, the defendant claims that the plaintiff contributed to their injury. In many states, a comparative fault defense is allowed. However, if both parties are at fault, the plaintiff can still recover damages. In some states, the exact percentage of fault is determined, and damages are awarded accordingly. In other states, the plaintiff must be less than 50% responsible to recover.
Assumption of Risk
This defense contends that the plaintiff knew the activity might be hazardous but chose to participate regardless. To succeed with this defense, the defendant must demonstrate that the plaintiff had actual knowledge of the potential danger. In other words, plaintiffs can only assume risks they are aware of.
In a product liability case, defendants might argue that the plaintiff was not using the product as intended. This defense could be successful if the defendant could also show that the unintended use was not foreseeable.
Contributory negligence and comparative fault defenses are also applicable in strict liability cases.
What Are Some Common Remedies Awarded in a Tort Law Case?
Remedies granted in a tort case depend on the type and severity of the harm inflicted on the victim. Common remedies awarded in civil tort cases include compensatory damages, which are monetary damages provided to the plaintiff for economic harm such as lost wages, medical expenses, or costs associated with repairing or replacing property.
Monetary damages may also be awarded to compensate the victim for pain and suffering or emotional distress.
Courts might issue an injunction, ordering the defendant to cease an action that has caused harm to the plaintiff. For example, a defendant found liable for spilling toxic substances may be ordered to clean up the spill and implement measures to prevent future spills.
In rare cases, plaintiffs might be awarded punitive damages. These damages are intended to punish the defendant for their harmful actions or gross negligence. Punitive damages are uncommon, as they are only awarded in particularly egregious cases where compensatory damages are deemed insufficient or when the defendant needs to face the consequences beyond merely compensating the victim for their actual damages.
Do I Need a Lawyer for Civil Tort Claims?
Tort law covers a wide range of potential harms, and a civil tort attorney can help you determine if you have been a victim of a tort, identify potential defendants, and assess your chances of recovering damages.
If you have experienced harm to your person or property, you should consult a tort lawyer to discuss a possible lawsuit.