If you are considering a career in law, then one area you may want to think about specializing in is tort law. A tort is when someone commits a wrongful action or violates someone else’s personal, property, or dignity rights, resulting in civil action against them. The purpose is to help the injured party regain some or all of the costs associated with what happened to them, as well as put liability onto the person who caused the injury.
Learn more about torts, the types of torts, examples of them, and what to think about if you’re looking to start a tort lawyer career. The specifics of tort law can vary by state, so make sure to familiarize yourself with the state laws where you intend to practice as it could affect the outcome of your case and the monetary compensation that your client could receive.
What is a Tort?
A civil breach committed against someone resulting in legal action is known as a tort. In these cases, the injured party is eligible to sue for damages, or compensation, for what happened to them. This is often seen in personal injury cases, where the plaintiff in the claim sues the defendant for financial obligations related to their injuries, losses, and more.
Types of Torts and Examples
There are three basic types of torts:
- Intentional torts, where someone intentionally committed a wrong and caused an injury to someone else.
- Negligent torts, where someone violated a duty they owed to the person harmed, such as running a red light and causing an accident.
- Strict liability torts, where it does not matter whether there was intent or a duty breached; the defendant is liable because the matter is so important. Strict Liability typically applies to product liability. For example, if a defective product caused an injury, then the manufacturer or store that sold it could be held liable.
Intentional Torts and Examples
An intentional tort occurs when the defendant knowingly intended to cause harm to someone else. This can be in the form of physical harm as well as emotional distress. It can also apply when intentional property damage occurs. Examples of intentional torts include:
- Assault: In tort law, assault means that someone threatened or attempted to harm another person, but did not actually touch them. That’s the difference between assault and battery, which is defined below: assault can happen without touching anyone.
- Battery: While assault is a threat of violence, a battery occurs when someone follows through on that threat and physically contacts another person. The contact can be either harmful or offensive. Someone who commits battery can face both civil and criminal charges. For civil battery, three elements must be included — intent, contact, and harm, which can be emotional or physical in nature.
- False Imprisonment: If someone restricts another person’s ability to move freely, then that can be classified as false imprisonment. The plaintiff has to prove willful and unlawful detention without consent in order to have a claim. This can include hostage situations or if someone commits an invalid citizen’s arrest. False imprisonment can be physical (ie, use of restraints) or through unreasonable duress or coercion.
- Trespass to Land: This occurs when someone intentionally comes onto someone else’s property. It can even apply to children using a yard as a shortcut to a school. In these cases, the plaintiff must show that the trespass happened without their permission. Importantly, this does not apply to postal workers or police officers, as they have implied consent to be on a property. Frequently, the cases of trespass that are actually litigated involve damage to the property. However, if there is no damage and the plaintiff simply wants the trespassing to stop, the plaintiff can ask for an injunction.
- Conversion: Conversion occurs when someone wants to regain the value of a piece of property that was taken without their permission and can no longer be returned (for example, it is used up or something else happens to it in the process.) If the property is sold, damaged, altered, misused, or not returned, then there are grounds for a conversion tort. Note that conversion applies to physical, tangible property, such as a car, bicycle, or electronics, and can even apply to the gas in a lawnmower borrowed without permission by a neighbor.
- Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress: This happens when the defendant acts outrageously and causes emotional distress. For example, threatening violence against someone or their loved ones, or leaving someone stranded in a dangerous place, causing them to experience severe distress, could constitute intentional infliction of emotional distress..
Negligent Torts vs. Intentional Torts
While some torts are intentional, many fall under the category of negligent instead. Instead of intentionally injuring someone, a negligent tort involves injuries caused by acts like distracted driving, failure to act, or careless actions where a person breaches a duty owed to another.. In other words, the harm caused to another happened unintentionally, but in a situation where the law recognizes an obligation to make it right. Many personal injury cases fall under this category, such as car accidents, medical malpractice, slip and fall injuries, and more.
In order to be eligible to claim damages under negligent torts, the plaintiff must demonstrate a violation of four elements of this tort, which are:
- Duty: The defendant has some kind of duty to another person. For example, someone driving a car has a duty to operate it properly.
- Breach of Duty: That duty was breached in some way. If one fails to operate their car properly and hits the plaintiff, then they have failed their duty.
- Causation: The plaintiff must show that the breach of duty directly caused the incident that happened to them or their loved one.
- Injury: The incident caused an injury to the plaintiff or a member of their family.
How Strict Liability Torts Can Happen
There are a few different ways strict liability can apply to a tortious injury. One of the most frequent cases is product liability. Injuries caused by wild or domestic animals are another.
Product Liability Cases
If someone is injured and it was caused by a defective product, then several entities can be held liable, depending on where the defect occurred. This is also referred to as product liability. Entities that may be liable for strict liability can include:
If an injury occurs because the consumer modified the product after purchasing, then strict liability likely will not apply. If the consumer tries to use the product incorrectly and the owner’s manual says not to use it that way, , then there is no strict liability. Types of items that can fall under this sort of case can include medical devices, medications, food, consumer goods, vehicles, and more.
For example, if a chainsaw was made with a defect that caused an injury, that would be product liability. However, if the consumer uses the chainsaw improperly or modifies it in some way and an injury occurs, the company would no longer be liable for what happened. Another example of this liability would be if a defect was discovered in a certain make and model of a car and the maker fails to issue a recall.
Wild and Domestic Animal Cases
One who keeps wild animals (lions, tigers, bears, etc.) is strictly liable for any harm they cause. Unfortunately, sometimes domestic animals (cats, dogs, birds, etc.) also escape and run loose or their owners are negligent and let them roam freely. If an animal comes onto someone else’s property and attacks them, then the animal’s owner is held liable under strict liability. Some breeds of dogs are classified as “dangerous” and owners are required to take the steps necessary to keep them properly restrained.
Laws for domestic animal cases vary from state to state (and even city to city), as some states have stricter policies than others, especially when it comes to dog breed restrictions.
Types of Compensation that Can Be Awarded
In tort cases, the attorney works with the plaintiff to determine the best types of compensation to claim as it pertains to their individual case. Types of compensation can include:
- Medical Bills
- Lost Wages
- Wrongful Death
- Pain and Suffering
Want to become a tort lawyer? Learn more about what it takes.
Learning about torts is an important part of law school. At St. Francis, our engaging coursework covers key legal principles in addition to professional lawyering skills to help our students pass the bar and graduate practice-ready. Learn more about our rigorous curriculum.