What is Tort Law?

By Teo Spengler - Updated April 16, 2018
car crash accident on the road

Injured in a car accident? Victim of medical malpractice? Had your front teeth knocked out by a neighbor over a parking space dispute? Tort law is a way to recover your financial losses. Criminal laws may send a wrong-doer to jail, but that won't help you pay for your auto-accident whiplash, the care you need after poor medical treatment or your dental bills.

Tip

Tort law includes laws intended to make you financially whole after you have suffered damages from the wrongful acts of others.

What Is a Tort Lawsuit?

Most claims you bring against someone in a civil case are based in tort law. Tort lawsuits are intended to provide you money to compensate for harm suffered from the wrongful acts of others. Lawsuits seeking damages in automobile accident cases or professional malpractice cases, harm suffered from slip-and-fall accidents in supermarkets or false attacks on your reputation online are all tort lawsuits.

Note that cases brought to enforce the terms of a contract are not tort lawsuits. In contract cases, you are only entitled to enforce the contract terms or to recover whatever the contract provides if its terms are broken. For example, if you enter into an agreement with someone to sell them your car but they back out, you will be able to recover whatever money you ultimately lose by selling it to someone else. You cannot get money for pain, suffering or emotional distress in a contract case.

Is Tort Law Civil or Criminal?

Don't confuse tort with criminal law. If someone attacks you and breaks your nose, a criminal case may be brought against them by the district attorney's office for assault. But you are the victim, not a party to the case, so you will not get money from the criminal court to pay for nose repairs. You'll need to file a tort lawsuit claiming that you suffered damages from the wrongdoer's acts in order to get a money judgment.

What Is an Example of a Tort?

Think of a wrongful action someone might do that would cause you damage and it's likely to be a tort. Torts fall fairly neatly into three categories:

Negligent torts result from someone's negligent behavior. A typical example is a car accident caused by a driver not paying attention to the road and plowing into the rear of your car. Other negligent torts include slip-and-falls in stores, malpractice claims against attorneys, doctors and other professionals and failure to properly maintain premises that result in someone's injury.

Intentional torts are caused by intentional acts. If a driver deliberately rams into your motorcycle, it's an intentional tort. Any assault or battery can result in an intentional tort, as can homicide. Trespass, invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress are also intentional torts. These acts can also be crimes that are prosecuted in criminal court and send the wrongdoer to jail.

Strict liability torts are slightly different legal animals. They are created by law and do not depend on the degree of care that the person uses. Rather, strict liability cases look at what happened and whether the law imposes liability for the result. For example, a manufacturer may be strictly liable for damages from selling a defective product.

About the Author

Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.

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