Reading: Tort Law

Photo of a hole in street (without its manhole cover), partially covered by a "men at work" street sign. Photo tag: "lawsuit waiting to happen."

In common law jurisdictions, a tort is a civil wrong that unfairly causes someone else to suffer loss or harm, resulting in legal liability for the person who commits the tortious act. Although crimes may be torts, the cause of legal action is not necessarily a crime, as the harm may be due to negligence. The following video explains what negligence is.

The victim of the harm can recover his or her loss as damages in a lawsuit. In order to prevail, the plaintiff in the lawsuit, commonly referred to as the injured party, must prove that a breach of duty (i.e., either an action or lack of action) was the legally recognizable cause of the harm.

Legal injuries are not limited to physical injuries and may include emotional, economic, or reputational injuries, as well as violations of privacy, property, or constitutional rights. Torts include such varied topics as auto accidents, false imprisonment, defamation, product liability, copyright infringement, and environmental pollution (toxic torts). While many torts are the result of negligence, tort law also recognizes intentional torts, in which a person has intentionally acted in a way that harms another. In addition, when it comes to product liability, the courts have established a doctrine of “strict liability” for torts arising from injury caused by the use of a company’s product and/or service. Under “strict liability,” the injured party does not have to prove that the company was negligent in order to win a claim for damages.

Tort law is different from criminal law in two ways: (1) torts may result from negligent as well as intentional or criminal actions, and (2) tort lawsuits have a lower burden of proof, such as “preponderance of evidence” rather than “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Sometimes a plaintiff may prevail in a tort case even if the person who allegedly caused harm was acquitted in an earlier criminal trial. For example, O. J. Simpson was acquitted in criminal court of murder but later found liable for the tort of wrongful death.

For businesses, torts that arise from product liability can have devastating consequences. Let’s examine product liability in greater detail.