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What is a Tort?

Updated on March 4, 2014

What is a Tort?

Do you know what a tort is? In the legal sense of the word, that is. A tort is not the same as a torte, which is a form of pastry. Torts are civil wrongs that are recognized by the law as grounds for a lawsuit. The most common tort cases arise from automobile accidents, slip and falls, and incidents of medical negligence. Tort law says that people must act reasonably so as not to cause damage, injury or loss to other parties. Torts are resolved in civil courts, where one person sues another person. If a crime was involved, the state will address that in a separate case in criminal court.

Intentional Torts

The law recognizes two kinds of torts: intentional and negligence. Intentional torts include actions that are intentional and voluntary, including battery, assault (acts of harmful or offensive contact), false imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, conversion and trespass to property. Intent to trespass can be indirect. If a person explodes some dynamite and damages a neighbor's property, the intent of trespass exists even though the person had no actual desire to invade the neighbor's property.


Negligence is the unintentional results of someone's reckless behavior. The most common torts today are the results of accidents, often an automobile accident. The driver of a vehicle is required to operate that vehicle in a safe manner. It is a breach of duty if the driver fails to use reasonable care when operating the motor vehicle. If someone is injured because of that failure, it is a tort.

Two other commonly filed torts include malpractice and property liability. Malpractice torts results from the mistakes of licensed professionals, such as doctors, dentists, lawyers or accountants. In order to win a malpractice tort, it will usually require that an expert witness (another professional in the same field) testify in court and verify that a mistake did occur.

Product liability occurs when a product, such as a prescription drug, a machine, toy or other device, causes injury. In this case, the plaintiff must prove that the product was constructed, designed or packaged without considering the injuries it could cause to a person.

Types of Damages

There are two types of damages available in torts: compensatory damages and punitive damages. Compensatory damages, usually in the form of money, are meant to compensate the victim for his/her losses. Those losses can include property, lost wages, medical bills, and pain and suffering, either physical or mental. Punitive damages are meant as a form of punishment. These are awarded only in extreme cases where the plaintiff has proven that the defendant acted with intent or malice. Simple negligence is not grounds for punitive damages. Cases involving fraud, intentional acts or bad faith are cases where punitive damages might be considered.

Tort law is quite complicated and if you find yourself either a defendant or a plaintiff in a tort case, you are strongly advised to retain an attorney who specializes in this form of the law.


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