Tort law can be traced as far back as 1250 AD to English law. It recognized the right of a victim of a physical attack to sue the wrongdoer for damages. By 1500, tort law had greatly expanded. It reached everything from something similar to today’s medical malpractice to libel and slander claims.
Today, tort law has expanded even further. Portions of tort law can be found in common law and statutes in states and countries around the world. While tort law is expansive, every statute or law goes back to the same purpose—righting wrongs.
Defining Tort Law
A “tort” is an act or lack of action that damages someone or something else. Courts will impose legal liability or responsibility against anyone who commits a tort. This person is sometimes referred to as the “tortfeasor.” Tort law covers any situation where there was a wrong, and the law provides a remedy to address that wrong.
The damages in a tort case could be physical injuries, or it could be a variety of other damages, including monetary damages. The injury in a tort case is a violation of legal rights, which may or may not cause physical harm.
Tort law gets its legal authority from written opinions from judges on prior cases and state laws. Although not a law in and of itself, many states and judges refer to the Restatement (Second) of Torts to determine requirements to prove the various types of torts.
The types of torts that exist today are too numerous to list. However, tort laws tend to fall into one of three categories.
- Intentional Torts. These are actions that are deliberate and cause harm, such as assault and battery.
- Negligent Torts. These actions may not have been deliberate, but they were reckless or dangerous. A car accident is likely the most common negligent tort.
- Strict Liability. These cases assume that a defendant was at fault or did something wrong because of a specific outcome. Dangerous products (product liability) are the most common examples of strict liability cases.
In addition, other types of torts might fall into more than one category, such as invasion of privacy, defamation, or nuisance.
Quick Examples of Tort Law Cases
Tort law covers a wide range of legal claims. Below are a few examples.
- Intentional infliction of emotional distress
- Products liability
- Fraud or misrepresentation
- Inducement of contract
The Restatement (Second) of Torts provides one of the most comprehensive listings of torts and their requirements available today.
Separating Torts from Criminal Law
Tort law is not the same as criminal law. The punishments are different, and the laws as very different.
A crime harms the state or society at large, even though it may affect one person in particular more than others. The main purpose of criminal law is to enforce public justice and protect society as a whole. In tort law, the purposes are often more focused on the victim involved in a particular action.
In some situations, a tort (like a battery) is both a crime and addressed based on tort law. The civil side of that type of situation would provide a monetary remedy to the victim. The criminal side would punish the wrongdoer and provide options for rehabilitation.
The Purpose of Tort Law
There are three underlying goals in every tort law case. Some cases focus more on one purpose over another.
The person who was injured or damaged should receive compensation from the person who injured them. This compensation might not address every loss, but it is often the only way the law has to repay victims for their losses.
The primary goal in many tort cases is to compensate the tort victim. Because this is the person who suffered direct consequences from another person’s actions or inactions, they should receive something to address those losses.
“Tort law serves as a good way to deter others from acting the same way,” says Mauricio Celis, a dual-licensed attorney at Celis Law Firm in the U.S and Mexico. “For example, if someone knows that they will have to pay for crashing into another person’s car, they may be less likely to engage in reckless driving behaviors.”
Ultimately, civilized society wants to encourage all citizens to be careful and avoid acting recklessly. Part of the way society as a whole can encourage citizens to be responsible is by holding people accountable for their actions.
Another role of tort law is to punish the wrongdoer. By imposing monetary damages awards, the wrongdoer feels a form of punishment for their actions.
Punishment is often the least important purpose of tort law. However, punishment can be a huge focus in some situations. If someone’s wrongdoing was especially egregious, it might be necessary to focus more on punishment than any other purpose. Examples might include harassment, discrimination cases, or situations where drunk driving caused a crash.
Focusing on the Purpose of Tort Law
Tort law can be highly complex, and attorneys spend years addressing various nuances in the law. However, each tort always returns to one or more of these three purposes. Each case is different, so one purpose may be more important than another based on the type of action involved.