What is a tort?

A tort is a civil wrong not based on contract law that results when a defendant engages in socially unreasonable conduct that harms another person. Generally, in tort claims the suing party (called the plaintiff) asks for monetary damages from the defendant (sometimes called the tortfeasor or person who committed the tort) to compensate him or her for the harm he or she has suffered. If you punch someone in the face, you have committed the tort of battery. If you drive your car recklessly and hit another vehicle, you have committed the tort of negligence. If you write false things on the Internet that harm another person's reputation, you have committed the tort of defamation. If you take pictures of a person changing clothes in a restroom, you have committed the tort of invasion of privacy.

Where does the word "tort" come from?

Most scholars trace it to the Latin word "tortus," which means twisted. If you think about it, that makes sense because tort law is concerned with socially unreasonable conduct or conduct twisted from the norm.

What types of cases are examples of tort cases?

Most automobile accidents are tort cases. So-called slip and fall cases are tort cases. Nearly all personal injury cases are tort cases of some sort. Libel cases are tort cases. Products liability and medical malpractice cases are tort cases. When you hear a lawyer advertise herself as handling personal injury cases, that means she deals in tort law.

A case involving an auto accident falls under the classification of

A case involving an auto accident falls under the classification of "tort" law (iStock).

How does tort law differ from criminal law?

Tort law differs from criminal law in several ways. Tort law is a form of civil law instead of criminal law. Criminal law serves the purpose of society at large, as criminal suits are brought by prosecutors on behalf of the state or the federal government. Tort suits generally are filed by private parties.

The fundamental purpose of criminal law is to punish those individuals who commit crimes. In contrast, the basic purpose of tort law is to compensate individuals for the harm that they have suffered.

Another major difference between tort and criminal law concerns the burden of proof. Criminal cases require the prosecution to prove its case by a very high standard called beyond a reasonable doubt. This requires almost absolute certainty by the jury (or judge) that the criminal defendant committed the unlawful act for which he is charged. Tort suits require the plaintiff to prove his case by preponderance of the evidence, which means more likely than not.

Can the same conduct form the basis for both a crime and a tort?

Absolutely. If you punch another person in the face, you can be charged with criminal assault and battery by the state or local government. Likewise, the victim (the person you punched) also can sue you for damages in court in a tort action. A famous example concerns the two trials involving former football great Orenthal James (O.J.)

Simpson. In 1995, a jury acquitted Simpson for the murders of his former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her companion Ronald Goldman.

However, the families of the victims then sued Simpson for the tort action of wrongful death. They prevailed in civil court—perhaps because of the lower standard of proof—and won a substantial monetary judgment against Simpson. The difference was that the civil tort suit led to a monetary judgment but no prison sentence.

How does tort law differ from contract law?

Tort and contract law are both forms of civil law, but they differ. Tort law imposes duties on everyone in society to act in a socially reasonable manner. Contract law imposes duties only on individuals who sign a contract. Similarly, tort law imposes obligations on everyone to act reasonably, while contract law imposes obligations on the parties who sign the contract.

Another major difference between these two forms of civil law concern the time period in which a person has to file a lawsuit—called a statute of limitations. In many states the standard time frame to file a tort lawsuit is one or two years, while the period for a suit based on contract is longer. Remember to check the law in your respective state for information on the applicable statute of limitations.

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