Civil Tort Law is a very broad area of the law that covers wrongdoing by one individual against another. A tort is a civil wrong, other than a breach of contract, that causes harm or loss. The person or entity that commits the wrong can be held liable for the loss or damage they cause.
The purpose of tort law is to compensate victims and hopefully deter or discourage wrongdoing. Tort law provides a way for injured parties to recover monetary damages for foreseeable harm that was caused by, or was the direct result of, the other party’s breach of their duty of care. The standard of care is that of a reasonable person in a similar situation.
Wrongdoing includes things that cause physical or economic injury, pain and suffering, violate privacy, property, or constitutional rights, or damage a reputation,
How are Torts Classified?
Torts are typically classified as either intentional, unintentional, or strict liability torts.
Intentional torts: Intentional torts are wrongful acts that were done on purpose. It is not necessary to prove that the plaintiff intended to harm the defendant, just that the defendant intentionally did something that caused harm to the plaintiff.
The category of intentional torts can be further broken down into intentional torts to the person and intentional torts to property.
- Intentional torts to the person: Intentional torts to the person are those that harm a person. The harm might be physical, but it can also be economic. Many intentional torts are also crimes. A person can be convicted of a crime and also liable for damages to the victim.
- Intentional torts to property: Just as it sounds, intentional torts to property are those that involve property. It does not necessarily mean that property was damaged. For example, a trespass to land might harm the plaintiff financially without the land ever being damaged.
Intentional torts to property include trespass to land (or physical invasion of property), trespass to chattels (intentional interference with a person’s right to possess personal property), nuisance, and conversion. Conversion is where the defendant interfered with the plaintiff’s right to possession of personal property to such an extent that the defendant is liable for the full value of the property.
Unintentional Torts: Unintentional torts usually involve a claim based on an allegation of negligence. An unintentional tort is essentially an accident that caused harm to another person. There is liability because the party who was negligent owed the victim a duty to act as a reasonable person would act in a similar situation, and breached that duty.
Strict liability torts: Strict liability torts are those in which the plaintiff does not have to prove that the defendant violated a standard of care. Strict liability usually applies in cases where the defendant was engaged in inherently dangerous activities and is liable simply because they were doing something dangerous and someone got hurt. Some examples include using explosives or transporting toxic chemicals. Animal attacks (dog bite claims) can also be strict liability.
Products liability torts are also strict liability. Someone who files a lawsuit against the manufacturer of a product just needs to show that the product was defective and that it caused an injury. The victim does not need to prove that the manufacturer was negligent or that they intentionally made a defective product.
What are Some Examples of Torts?
Civil tort law covers a wide variety of wrongs or harmful behavior. Some of the more common civil torts include:
- Civil assault or civil battery, depending on the facts of the case
- 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
The most common type of tort lawsuit involves a claim of negligence. Negligence claims require showing that the defendant owed the plaintiff (the victim) a duty of care, the defendant breached that duty, and the breach caused the plaintiff harm or injury.
Some common negligence tort examples include the following personal injury claims:
- Slip and fall accidents
- Car, truck, or motorcycle accidents
- Bicycle accidents
- Medical malpractice
- Negligent infliction of emotional distress
What is the Difference Between a Crime and a Tort?
Some torts are also crimes, but there is a difference between a tort and a crime. Torts are wrongs against people or property. A person who commits a tort is liable for the harm they caused. A crime is also a wrongful act, but it is one the state or federal government has classified as illegal. The wrongful act is a violation of a state or federal law.
A defendant found liable for a tort will owe the plaintiff monetary damages. A defendant convicted of a crime will be punished by the government and may face fines, incarceration, or other criminal penalties.
Are There Any Defenses to Civil Torts?
A defendant in a civil tort lawsuit has a few defenses available. The defenses available depend on the type of tort the defendant has been accused of committing.
Defenses to intentional torts include:
- Consent: A consent defense claims that the defendant was given permission by the plaintiff. The plaintiff must have had capacity to consent, so they could not have been underage, under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or have a diminished mental capacity.
- Self defense, defense of others, or defense of property: A defendant can raise one of these defenses if they acted in response to an imminent threat to themselves, someone else, or to their property.
- Necessity: Necessity is a defense to intentional torts to property. For example, necessity might be a defense to trespass if the defendant entered the plaintiff’s land because someone’s life was in danger and they needed help.
Defenses to unintentional torts or negligence claims include contributory negligence, comparative fault, and assumption of risk.
- Contributory negligence: A defendant using a contributory negligence defense is essentially saying that the plaintiff was also negligent and could have avoided their injuries if they had been more careful. In some states any fault on the part of the plaintiff means the defendant is not liable, even if they played some role in the plaintiff’s injury.
- Comparative fault: Many other states allow for a comparative fault defense. As with contributory negligence, the defendant argues that the plaintiff contributed to their injury. However, if both parties are at fault the plaintiff can still recover. In some states the exact percentage of fault is determined and damages awarded accordingly. In other states the plaintiff had to be less than 50% responsible to recover.
- Assumption of risk: Assumption of risk is the argument by the defendant that the plaintiff knew the activity might be dangerous, but decided to participate anyway. For this defense to be successful, the defendant must show that the plaintiff had actual knowledge of the potential danger. In other words, plaintiffs can only assume risks they are aware exist.
Defendants in a products liability case might be able to argue that the plaintiff was not using the product the way it was intended to be used. This defense might be successful if the defendant is also able to show that the unintended use was not foreseeable. For example, suppose a plaintiff used a chair to reach a high shelf and the chair broke, injuring the plaintiff. A chair manufacturer does not make chairs for that purpose, however it is foreseeable that a consumer might use it that way.
Contributory negligence and comparative fault are also available in strict liability cases.
What Are Some Common Remedies Awarded in a Tort Law Case?
Remedies issued in a tort case will depend on the type and seriousness of the harm to the victim. Some of the common remedies awarded in a civil tort case include compensatory damages. There are monetary damages awarded to a plaintiff for economic harm such as lost wages, medical expenses, or costs related to repairing or replacing property.
Monetary damages can also be awarded to compensate the victim for their pain and suffering or emotional distress.
The court might also issue an injunction, ordering the defendant to stop doing something that has caused harm to the plaintiff. For example, a defendant who has been liable for spilling toxic substances may also be ordered to clean up the spill and take action to avoid future spills.
Though it is rare, in some cases, plaintiffs might be awarded punitive damages. Punitive damages are intended to punish the defendant for their harmful actions or gross negligence. Punitive damages are rare because they are only awarded in the most egregious cases where the court feels compensatory damages are insufficient, or the defendant needs to pay a price beyond compensating the victim for their actual damages.
Do I Need a Lawyer for Civil Tort Claims?
Tort law is very broad and covers many possible harms. A civil tort attorney can help you identify if you have been a victim of a tort, who the potential defendants are, and your chances of recovering damages.
If you have suffered a harm to your person or property, you should consult with a personal injury lawyer to discuss a potential lawsuit. Tort claims can be complicated and are dependent on state laws. An experienced attorney can help you navigate the claim from start to finish. They can file a lawsuit, communicate with the defendant or their attorney, negotiate on your behalf, and represent you in court.