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Personal Injury Law – What is a ‘Tort?’

Video Transcript

“0:00 what is it tort a tort is a civil 0:03 wrong other than a breach of contract 0:05 for which the law provides a remedy tort 0:08 law basically prevents people from 0:11 taking the law into their own hands by 0:15 providing a social remedy and it’s akin 0:18 to a social contract because it implies 0:21 a duty of everybody out there to behave 0:23 in a reasonable manner and if they 0:25 breached that duty the law provides a 0:28 way for you or the person harmed to go 0:31 into court and seek money damages.[“

A tort is a civil wrong other than a breach of contract for which the law provides a remedy. Tort law basically prevents people from taking the law into their own hands by providing a social remedy; it’s akin to a social contract because it implies a duty of everybody out there to behave in a reasonable manner. If they breach that duty, the law provides a way for you (or the person harmed) to go into court and seek money damages.

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Explaining What Is a Tort and Its Types with Case Examples

One of the major legal concepts in personal injury law is a tort, and it may be challenging to wrap your head around it. Ehline Law and our personal injury attorneys will explain what tort is and the types of torts.

What Is a Tort

A tort is a civil wrong, an act or omission by a person towards another, for which the courts impose liability and the law provides a remedy. Tort law implies that everyone has a legal duty, expecting everyone to behave reasonably.

If they breach that duty, injured victims can go to court to seek monetary compensation for the damages incurred. Although it may sound similar to contract law, tort law is different, as a breach of a contract is not necessarily a tortious act.

Under tort law, the courts can shift the burden of loss from the injured party to the at-fault party by awarding damages. Besides monetary compensation, other forms of remedy may include injunction and restitution, which are not so common.

Common law and state law determine the boundaries of tort law, and judges can use their experience and knowledge to interpret the language of statutes to determine the following:

  • What acts can be constituted as a civil wrong?
  • What defenses can the defendant use to strike the claim?
  • What could be the possible and appropriate damages awarded?

Types of Tort Laws

Tort lawsuits cover a wide range of personal injury cases, but tort law is generally divided into three categories: intentional torts, negligent torts, and strict liability torts.

Intentional Torts

Intentional torts are wrongful acts that a person plans out before they carry out their actions, and they are fully aware of their actions. 

Many crimes carried out come under criminal law, but also intentional torts. Assault, battery, murder, false imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, fraud, defamation, invasion of privacy, and trespass are all examples of intentional torts and crime.

Bollea v Gawker is an excellent example of intentional tort where Terry Bollea (stage name Hulk Hogan) pursued a lawsuit against Gawker Media for intentional torts of invasion of privacy after Gawker Media released a sex tape including Terry Bollea and Heather Clem. The jury found the defendant liable for the severe emotional distress caused to Bollea and awarded $115 million in damages and $25 million in punitive damages to the wrestler.

Intentional tort law is tricky to navigate as, in some cases, a person conducting a deliberate act may not want to cause harm. For example, surprising someone with a heart condition on their birthday may lead to a heart attack, and if that happens, it comes under intentional tort even though you did not mean to cause harm.

Negligent Torts

Negligence may mean nothing more than carelessness in our daily lives, but under the legal system, negligence refers to failing to exercise reasonable care. According to the “Winfield and Jolowicz on Tort” book, the breach of a legal duty resulting in injuries and damages to another is negligence.

Unlike intentional tort, a negligent tort is an unintentional act by a party who fails to act in a reasonable way, affecting another party they owe the legal duty. 

For example, a grocery store owes their customer a duty to ensure a safe environment for all shoppers. If the store owner fails to clean the wet floor, and a customer slips and falls, resulting in injuries, the store owner is negligent in carrying out their duty.

To have a valid negligence case, the following elements must exist:

  • The party owed a legal duty to the injured party
  • The party breached that legal duty
  • The other party suffered injuries
  • The injuries occurred due to the responsible party’s negligence.

The first element of negligence is presumed duty, initially established in Donoghue v Stevenson. It was then referred to as the “neighbor” principle, where one must excise reasonable care to avoid acts that one could reasonably foresee would cause injuries to their neighbor, people closely and directly affected by one’s action.

The neighbor principle was very broad; under it, everyone could be a neighbor, which is why in the 1990 Caparo v Dickman case, the court reduced the parameters of this definition by introducing the three-fold test to determine the duty of care. 

For the duty of care to arise, it must include the following:

  • The harm that is foreseeable as a result of the defendant’s actions
  • A relationship of proximity between the parties
  • Fairness to impose liability.

Violation of legal duty is the second element of a negligence case. In many cases, it is easy to determine whether the legal duty exists between the parties, but the main issue arises in identifying whether the defendant’s action fulfilled the legal duty. When the defendant did not act in a manner a reasonable person would, it means they violated their legal duty to the plaintiff.

The third element of the negligence case is that a party suffered injuries due to another’s negligence. Here the injured party must prove the chain of causality from the defendant’s actions that led to injuries. To prove that, the claimant must use the “but for” test, where they must illustrate that if it were not but for the defendant’s actions, they would not have suffered damages.

The 1969 Barnett v Chelsea and Kensington HMC case perfectly demonstrates how the “but for” test operates. Mr. Barnett reaches a hospital and complains of stomach discomfort. However, the doctor sends the person back home and tells them to contact their GP in the morning. After five hours, Mr. Barnett died from arsenic poisoning, prompting his spouse to sue the Chelsea & Kensington Hospital Management Committee for medical malpractice.

The judge found that the defendant was not liable as even if the hospital admitted Mr. Barnett, he would’ve died, as there is nothing the hospital could do to treat arsenic poisoning. Although the hospital breached the standard of care, its actions did not result in the death of Mr. Barnett.

People should only be responsible for losses they can foresee; to explain this principle, Wagon Mound (1961) is the perfect case. The defendant’s ship was refueling another ship and negligently spilled oil into the water surrounding the vessels. They did not clean the oil, eventually reaching the plaintiff’s wharf where workers were welding. The sparks from the welding resulted in fire, destroying the wharf and all the equipment on it.

The wharf owner sued the ship owner, but the court ruled in favor of the defendant, stating that damage is only compensable when a reasonable person reasonably foresees the damage.

Strict Liability Torts

Strict liability tort is a limited theory of tort liability. It is a legal doctrine that holds a party responsible for injuries strictly liable without the injured party having to prove negligence or fault. Under strict liability tort, there are two activities for which a plaintiff may hold the other party responsible: possession of dangerous animals and abnormally dangerous activities.

Torts involving strict liability are not free of controversy, as many legal scholars believe that defendants should not be liable for something for they did not have any intentions.

In the case of Foster v Preston Mill Co, Foster sued Preston Mill Co in the Supreme Court of Washington for noise and vibration due to blasting, which resulted in his mink getting frightened, causing it to kill its kittens. It prompted Foster to bring a lawsuit under strict liability theory.

When bringing a strict liability lawsuit, the theory remains confined to the consequences which lie within the risk created by extreme and outrageous conduct or abnormally dangerous activity.

The judge ruled in favor of the defendant, stating that the blasting was a nuisance only to the plaintiff and not others and that the risk of causing harm from minor noise is not the risk that makes blasting ultra-hazardous.

Is Tort Law Different than Criminal Law?

Tort law applies to different parties and individuals, meaning it applies to civil cases, while criminal law involves government as the prosecutor against the accused. In most tort cases, the remedy for tort law is monetary compensation, while in some cases, the plaintiff may seek injunctive relief. On the other hand, anyone accused of a crime under criminal law must face imprisonment.

Schedule a Free Consultation with Ehline Tort Law Experts

Ehline Law and our personal injury attorneys have over a decade of experience handling personal injury torts cases, including car accidents, wrongful death, and dog bite lawsuits.

If you suffered injuries in an accident due to another’s negligence, contact us at (833) LETS-SUE for a free consultation, as you may be eligible to seek compensation.

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