Tort law refers to the set of laws that provides remedies to individuals who have suffered harm by the unreasonable acts of another. Tort law is based on the idea that people are liable for the consequences of their actions, whether intentional or accidental, if they cause harm to another person or entity. Torts are the civil wrongs that form the basis of civil lawsuits. To explore this concept, consider the following tort law definition.
Definition of Tort Law
- An area of law that deals with the wrongful actions of an individual or entity, which cause injury to another individual’s or entity’s person, property, or reputation, and which entitle the injured party to compensation.
Origin of Tort
1350-1400 Middle English (injury, wrong)
What is Tort Law
Tort law is the body of laws that enables people to seek compensation for wrongs committed against them. When someone’s actions cause some type of harm to another, whether it be physical harm to another person, or harm to someone’s property or reputation, the harmed or injured person or entity may seek damages through the court.
Damages are a monetary award ordered by the court to be paid to an injured party, by the party at fault. Damages may be awarded in compensation for loss of, or damage to, personal or real property, for an injury, or for a financial loss.
The types of damages that may be awarded by the court for civil wrongs, called “tortious conduct,” of an individual or entity include:
The legal term tort refers to an action in which one person or entity causes injury, harm, or damage to another person or entity. A tort liability may occur as a result of intentional acts, a negligent act, a failure to act when the individual had a duty to act, or a violation of statutes or laws. The individual who commits the tortious act (the act leading to the tort liability claim) is called the “tortfeasor,” and is the defendant in this type of civil lawsuit. Such a defendant is generally held liable for damages or harm suffered by the plaintiff, as a result of the defendant’s acts.
In many tort liability cases, the damages or injury suffered by the plaintiff do not have to be physical injury. A defendant in a tort liability case, who is found to be liable for his or her tortious acts, may be ordered to pay damages for harm, such as violation of personal rights, pain and suffering, and emotional distress.
Types of Tort
There are a number of specific types of tort that form the basis of the majority of civil lawsuits in the United States. These include, among others:
Tort law divides most specific torts into three general categories:
- Intentional Torts – the causing of harm by an intentional act, such as intentionally conning someone out of his money.
- Negligent Torts – the causing of harm through some negligent act, such as causing a car accident by running a red light.
- Strict Liability Torts – the result of harm incurred due to the actions of another, with no finding of fault by the defendant.
Additional and separate specific torts include:
- Defamation Torts
- Nuisance Torts
- Privacy Torts
- Economic Torts
Intentional torts are acts committed with the intent to harm another, or to deliberately interfere with an individual’s rights to bodily safety, emotional tranquility, privacy, control over property, freedom from deception, and freedom from confinement. Intentional torts commonly include such issues as assault and/or battery, false imprisonment, invasion of privacy, theft, property damage, fraud or other deception, and trespassing.
Intent is a key issue in proving an intentional tort, as the injured party, called the Plaintiff, must prove to the court that the other party, called the Respondent or Defendant, acted intentionally, and knew that his actions could cause harm. In some cases, the Plaintiff need only prove that the Defendant should have known that his actions could cause harm. Many intentional torts may also be charged as criminal offenses.
Raymond stops by the local bar for a few drinks before he heads home after work. After drinking four cocktails, Raymond gets into his car, and runs a stop sign, crashing into another car, seriously injuring its occupants. Although Raymond might argue that he didn’t know he would hurt someone, it is expected that Raymond should have known that driving under the influence is likely to cause harm, or to kill another person.
Because Raymond intentionally drank alcohol, knowing he planned on driving home, and any reasonable person should know that drinking and driving could result in harm, he has committed an intentional tort. In addition, Raymond may be criminally charged with felony DUI.
The acts leading to claims of harm or injury in negligent torts are not intentional. There are three specific elements that must be satisfied in a claim of negligence:
- The defendant must have a duty or owe a service to the plaintiff or victim
- The defendant must have failed that duty, or violated a promise or obligation to the plaintiff
- The plaintiff must have suffered an actual loss, injury, or damages that were directly caused by the plaintiff’s actions, or failure to act
Strict Liability Torts
Strict liability refers to the concept of imposing liability on a defendant, usually a manufacturer, without proving negligent fault, or intent to cause harm. The purpose of strict liability torts is to regulate activities that are acknowledged as being necessary and useful to society, but which pose an abnormally high risk of danger to the public.
Such activities may include transportation and storage of hazardous substances, blasting, and keeping certain wild animals in captivity. The possibility of civil lawsuits under strict liability torts keeps individuals or corporations undertaking such dangerous acts diligent in taking every possible precaution to keep the public safe.
Suing Under Strict Liability Tort
In a strict liability lawsuit, the law assumes that the supplier or manufacturer of the product was aware the defect existed before the product reached the consumer. Because of this, the plaintiff need only prove that harm or damages occurred, and that the defendant is responsible. To successfully bring a civil lawsuit under a strict liability tort, the following elements must be proven:
- The named defendant is the manufacturer of the defective product
- The product was defective when the plaintiff purchased it
- The defect was present when the defendant sold the product
- The defect caused the plaintiff’s injuries or damages
- The injuries or damages caused by the product’s defect were reasonably foreseeable by the defendant
A plaintiff in a strict liability lawsuit may be awarded additional damages if he can prove that the defendant knew about the defect when the product was sold to consumers.
Amanda buys a new car from her local Zoom Auto dealership. Only three months later, Amanda noticed her brakes felt soft, so she took her car to dealer’s repair shop. They told her she just needed new brake pads, replaced them, and sent Amanda on her way. A month later, while Amanda was driving on a busy freeway, her brakes failed, and she crashed into another car. Amanda’s car was very badly damaged, and Amanda suffered a broken arm and a concussion.
Amanda discovers, while researching the brake problem she had been having with her car, that this particular model has had brake problems since it was first released for sale to the public. In digging deeper, Amanda discovers that Zoom Auto knew the car’s brake system was defective before they sold the cars, but determined it would be too expensive to bring them all back into the factory to change out the brake systems.
In suing Zoom Auto, Amanda must use this information to prove:
- Zoom Auto manufactured the defective vehicle
- The car’s brake system was defective when she bought the car
- The car’s brake system was defective when Zoom Auto sold the car to Amanda
- The brake defect caused Amanda’s injuries, as well as the severe damage to her car
- It was reasonably foreseeable that selling a car with a defective brake system would cause injury to consumers
- Zoom Auto knew about the defective brake system in this particular model car before they sold the vehicles, yet chose to sell them anyway, in blatant disregard of the safety of consumers
Federal Tort Claims Act
Historically, under the legal doctrine of “sovereign immunity,” people could not sue the government, unless the government gave them permission. This left people who, for instance, were run over by the mailman, slipped in a puddle caused by a leaky water fountain in the passport office, or were hit by a car driven by an FBI agent who was talking on his phone, out in the cold.
In 1946, Congress passed the Federal Tort Claims Act, giving people the right to sue the U.S. government in federal court for tortious acts committed by individuals acting in their rolls as federal government employees. This permission is limited, however, maintaining certain protections for the government.
Under the Federal Tort Claims Act (“FTCA”), the U.S. government is liable for the tortious acts of individuals acting on the government’s behalf, in the same way a private party would be liable in similar circumstances. The amount of damages that may be awarded in such a lawsuit, however, is limited, with no allowance for punitive damages, or interest accumulated prior to the date of judgment.
The Federal Tort Claims Act also exempts the federal government from certain specified torts, though this protection is not extended to intentional torts committed by law enforcement officials. This means that individuals harmed by the unlawful actions of law enforcement officials may bring a civil lawsuit against the agency for damages.
Filing a Claim under the FTCA
The FTCA specifies that anyone wishing to file a tort claim against the United States must do so, in writing to the appropriate federal agency, within two years of the date the tort occurred. This means that the statute of limitations on filing an administrative claim under the FTCA is two years.
Any individual wishing to file an administrative claim for reimbursement for damages or injury must demonstrate that:
- His property was damaged, or he was injured, by the actions of an employee of the federal government
- The federal employee was acting in his official capacity at the time the damage or injury occurred
- The federal employee acted wrongfully, or negligently
- The federal employee’s wrongful or negligent act caused the plaintiff’s damages or injury
In most cases, an individual who desires to file a claim under the FTCA must first file an administrative claim with the federal agency that employs the employee that caused the damages. This requires filling out the required forms, and providing documents or other evidence supporting the claimant’s position. Forms and additional information can be obtained from the Department of Justice website.
Once an administrative claim has been filed, the agency has six months to respond to the claimant. If the claimant is not happy with the agency’s response or decision, he has six months from the date the response was mailed to him to file a civil lawsuit under the FTCA. In the event the federal agency does not respond to the claimant within the six month time frame, the claimant may go ahead and file a civil lawsuit, but his six-month statute of limitations does not begin to run until the agency actually provides a response or decision.
When filing a claim under the FTCA, the lawsuit must be filed in the U.S. District Court, which is the official name of the federal court, in the district where the tortious act occurred, or where the plaintiff lives.
The term tort reform has been bandied about as a hot-button issue since the congressional elections in 2010. The average American citizen does not understand what tort reform actually means, and has no idea that it has no bearing on any laws, but is a general acknowledgement that the amount of damages awarded to victorious plaintiffs in tort lawsuits has grown too large.
In past decades, juries have sought to sufficiently reimburse plaintiffs for tortious wrongs committed against them, as well as to punish many defendants for actions the jury considers blatant and egregious. Many proposed tort reform acts have proven to be ill considered, however, as they seek to make it more difficult for people to file civil lawsuits, to make it more difficult for plaintiffs to obtain a jury trial on a civil matter, and to cap the amount of money plaintiffs can be awarded in various types of civil lawsuits.
While some people consider awards made to certain victorious plaintiffs to be exorbitant, the truth is, some of these plaintiffs experience seriously increased costs of living, medical expenses, loss of income, and loss of quality of life, due to the tortious behaviors of others. An award of damages in the millions of dollars range may sound like a large award, but when considering it spread over the plaintiff’s lifetime, it is often merely enough to get by.
Tort Law and Tort Reform Under Scrutiny
Tort reform has come under public scrutiny, as many people find publicized awards in civil lawsuits to be shockingly large. One of the most famous tort lawsuits in recent history in the case of a 79-year old woman who sued McDonald’s restaurants when she spilled her coffee, and was burned.
Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants
In 1992, 79-year old Stella Liebeck spilled a cup of McDonald’s coffee in her lap, sustaining third degree burns to both legs. The severity of the full-thickness burns required skin grafts. This involved stripping skin from other areas of Liebeck’s body to graft onto the burned areas which were no longer able to grow skin on their own, leaving her with even more wounds to heal. When McDonald’s denied Liebeck’s request to pay her medical bills, she filed a civil lawsuit.
During the course of the case, it was discovered McDonald’s had received hundreds of other complaints from customers complaining that their coffee had caused severe burns, and that the corporation’s operations manual specified the coffee was to be kept at 180-190 degrees Fahrenheit. It is known and accepted, by the scientific and medical communities, that liquid at that temperature, if spilled onto a person, causes third degree burns in three to seven seconds.
A jury awarded Liebeck $200,000 in compensatory damages to pay for medical bills and other related expenses. Because it was clear the company knew its coffee was kept at a dangerously high temperature, and was therefore likely cause serious injury, the jury also awarded Liebeck $2.7 million in punitive damages, which amounted to the company’s sales revenue from just two days of coffee sales.
While many proponents of tort reform view this case as a supreme example of a frivolous lawsuit with a shockingly high award, the truth is, McDonald’s knew its coffee could cause third degree burns, yet continued to specifically instruct its restaurant employees to keep and serve it at that temperature. Ms. Liebeck’s injuries were severe, her painful third degree burns requiring skin grafts. McDonald’s was given an opportunity to settle the matter out of court, but they refused to do so.
Ultimately, the judge reduced the amount awarded by the jury to $640,000, and the case was appealed by McDonald’s, which finally settled for an undisclosed amount before the appeal concluded. In this case, the current tort system worked property, as it prompted McDonald’s to settle the case, quite possibly because of a concern that the award would be boosted back up to the original amount awarded by the jury.
Related Legal Terms and Issues
- Civil Lawsuit – A lawsuit brought about in court when one person claims to have suffered a loss due to the actions of another person.
- Criminal Offense – An act committed by an individual that is in violation of the law, or that poses a threat to the public.
- Damages – A monetary award in compensation for a financial loss, loss of or damage to personal or real property, or an injury.
- Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
- Entity – An individual, company, association, trust, or other organization that is legally recognized in the eyes of the law. A legal entity is able to enter into contracts, take on obligations, pay debts, be sued, and be held responsible for its actions.
- Personal Property – Any item that is moveable and not fixed to real property.
- Plaintiff – A person who brings a legal action against another person or entity, such as in a civil lawsuit, or criminal proceedings.
- Punitive Damages – Money awarded to the injured party above and beyond their actual damages. Punitive damages, also referred to as “exemplary damages,” are ordered for the purpose of punishing the wrongdoer for outrageous misconduct in a civil matter.
- Real Property – Land and property attached or fixed directly to the land, including buildings and structures.
Elements of a Negligence Case
In order to prove that the defendant was negligent and therefore liable for your injuries, you must prove all of the "elements." For instance, one of the elements is "damages," meaning the plaintiff must have suffered damages (injuries, loss, etc.) in order for the defendant to be held liable. So even if you can prove that the defendant indeed acted negligently, you may not collect damages if you didn't suffer any injuries.
Juries are instructed to compare the facts, testimony, and evidence with the following elements before reaching a verdict:
- Breach of Duty
- Cause in Fact
- Proximate Cause
These five elements are explained in greater detail below. See FindLaw's Negligence section for additional resources and articles.
The outcomes of some negligence cases depend on whether the defendant owed a duty to the plaintiff. Such a duty arises when the law recognizes a relationship between the defendant and the plaintiff, and due to this relationship, the defendant is obligated to act in a certain manner toward the plaintiff. A judge, rather than a jury, ordinarily determines whether a defendant owed a duty of care to a plaintiff. Where a reasonable person would find that a duty exists under a particular set of circumstances, the court will generally find that such a duty exists.
In the example involving the defendant loading bags of grain onto a truck, and striking a child with one of the bags, the first question that must be resolved is whether the defendant owed a duty to the child. In other words, a court would need to decide whether the defendant and the child had a relationship such that the defendant was required to exercise reasonable care in handling the bags of grain near the child. If the loading dock were near a public place, such a public sidewalk, and the child was merely passing by, then the court may be more likely to find that the defendant owed a duty to the child. On the other hand, if the child were trespassing on private property and the defendant did not know that the child was present at the time of the accident, then the court would be less likely to find that the defendant owed a duty.
Breach of Duty
A defendant is liable for negligence when the defendant breaches the duty that the defendant owes to the plaintiff. A defendant breaches such a duty by failing to exercise reasonable care in fulfilling the duty. Unlike the question of whether a duty exists, the issue of whether a defendant breached a duty of care is decided by a jury as a question of fact. Thus, in the example above, a jury would decide whether the defendant exercised reasonable care in handling the bags of grain near the child.
Cause in Fact
Under the traditional rules in negligence cases, a plaintiff must prove that the defendant's actions actually caused the plaintiff's injury. This is often referred to as "but-for" causation. In other words, but for the defendant's actions, the plaintiff's injury would not have occurred. The child injured by the defendant who tossed a bag of grain onto a truck could prove this element by showing that but for the defendant's negligent act of tossing the grain, the child would not have suffered harm.
Proximate cause relates to the scope of a defendant's responsibility in a negligence case. A defendant in a negligence case is only responsible for those harms that the defendant could have foreseen through his or her actions. If a defendant has caused damages that are outside of the scope of the risks that the defendant could have foreseen, then the plaintiff cannot prove that the defendant's actions were the proximate cause of the plaintiff's damages.
In the example described above, the child injured by the bag of grain would prove proximate cause by showing that the defendant could have foreseen the harm that would have resulted from the bag striking the child. Conversely, if the harm is something more remote to the defendant's act, then the plaintiff will be less likely to prove this element. Assume that when the child is struck with the bag of grain, the child's bicycle on which he was riding is damaged. Three days later, the child and his father drive to a shop to have the bicycle fixed. On their way to the shop, the father and son are struck by another car. Although the harm to the child and the damage to the bicycle may be within the scope of the harm that the defendant risked by his actions, the defendant probably could not have foreseen that the father and son would be injured three days later on their way to having the bicycle repaired. Hence, the father and son could not prove proximate causation.
A plaintiff in a negligence case must prove a legally recognized harm, usually in the form of physical injury to a person or to property. It is not enough that the defendant failed to exercise reasonable care. The failure to exercise reasonable care must result in actual damages to a person to whom the defendant owed a duty of care.
Filing a Negligence Claim
Even if you're confident that all the elements for a negligence claim are present, it takes a skilled lawyer to make a compelling case and ultimately win. And since you can have your claim evaluated absolutely free, there's no risk in consulting with an attorney if you have been injured as a result of someone else's negligence.