When someone suffers a personal injury because of the misconduct of another person or entity, they may file a civil lawsuit to obtain compensation for their injuries.
In this context, the wrongful conduct that triggered the suit is known as a tort, and the aggrieved person brings a personal injury lawsuit against the accused.
If the lawsuit succeeds, the defendant must pay the plaintiff damages. Damages address the injuries and losses suffered by the plaintiff because of the defendant’s behavior. Damages return the plaintiff to the state he enjoyed before the incident or make him whole again. You may sue someone in civil court for a tort they committed while they face criminal charges.
There are many different kinds of tort claims. Many people imagine a tort as a physical attack, such as battery, but this is only one kind of tort. Also included under the tort umbrella are breaches of trust and negligent acts.
In many tort cases, the person who suffered the injury is not the person filing the lawsuit. If the victim dies from their injuries, their loved ones may file suit on their behalf. Some states call this a survivor’s action.
Although an incredibly numerous and diverse range of misconduct can be classified as a tort, we can sort most torts into one of three categories, intentional acts, negligent acts, and strict liability.
Which category a tort falls under determines the plaintiff’s burden of proof—in other words, what and how much evidence they most present to the court to prove their case.
Plaintiffs bring most tort claims under a theory of negligence.
To bring a successful negligence lawsuit, the plaintiff must prove four elements: a) they were owed a duty of care by the defendant; b) the defendant’s behavior violated that duty; c) this violation caused the plaintiff to suffer injuries; c) and these injuries resulted in damages.
We all deserve a duty of care from our fellow humans. When we’re crossing a busy street, the people driving on that street owe us a certain duty of care. For example, they have a duty to observe and obey all traffic signs to not run us over in the middle of the crosswalk. When a person carelessly flaunts one of these duties, they can act negligently.
Under a negligence theory, the violation of a duty is not enough. This violation must have caused the plaintiff injuries. Even if the defendant’s behavior was outrageous and violates all norms and decency, the plaintiff has no claim
if it did not cause injuries.
Causation is often the most slippery negligence element and the most difficult to prove.
Finally, the plaintiff’s injuries must result in damages. Generally, this means the plaintiff must suffer more than nominal losses. In other words, it must be possible to assign the harm a monetary value (e.g., medical debt, loss of wages, mental trauma, etc.).
Some common negligence torts include:
- Slip and fall: If a person ‘slips and falls’ because a path or walkway was wet or icy, and the area wasn’t marked by a warning or caution sign, they may have a slip and fall negligence claim against the property owner.
- Car accidents: Car accidents produce thousands of negligence claims every year. If a person is injured in a crash because another driver ran a red light or was texting while driving, they may have a negligence claim.
- Medical malpractice: Doctors owe their patients a unique duty of care and have certain professional standards they must abide by when practicing medicine. If the care or treatment they administer fails to meet these standards, and a patient suffers injuries, they may face liability for the tort of medical negligence.
Unlike a negligent tort, an intentional tort is a wrongful act intentionally committed by the defendant. The defendant purposely engaged in conduct that injured the plaintiff. For example, if two people argue and one of them punches the other, the receiver of the punch may have an intentional tort claim.
Intentional torts often lead to criminal charges because the element of intent is present. Thus, a defendant facing a lawsuit for civil battery may also face criminal charges for criminal battery.
In the intentional tort context, the plaintiff must still connect the tort to his or her injuries and the injuries must have resulted in damages.
Examples of intentional torts include:
- Assault: Civil assault occurs when the defendant’s behavior puts the plaintiff in a state of fear or apprehension of physical conduct. For example, the brandishing of a gun as a means of intimidation may create a claim for civil assault.
- Battery: The defendant intentionally touches or applies force to the plaintiff’s body in a way that causes injury.
- Conversion: The unlawful possession or use of another individual’s property. Unlike in theft, the defendant need not permanently possess the property in question. For example, if someone steals his neighbor’s car to go joyriding, and later returns the car, the neighbor could file suit for the tort of conversion.
- False imprisonment: Here the defendant restrains or confines the plaintiff in a bounded area. A classic example of false imprisonment is a store security guard that restrains someone wrongfully accused of shoplifting.
- Fraud: The tort of fraud occurs when the defendant makes a wrongful representation of a material fact (i.e., it could induce someone to engage in a certain kind of transaction, etc.). Identity theft is an example of tortious fraud.
- Intentional infliction of emotional distress: This tort occurs when an individual intentionally causes, through outrageous or reckless conduct, severe emotional distress to another person. The defendant need not make physical contact with the plaintiff; words, actions, or even gestures may cause distress. For example, if a creditor frequently threatens to kidnap the children of a debtor, and the debtor has a psychological breakdown, the creditor may be liable for IIED.
- Trespass: When a person (or their object) enters another’s person land without excuse they may be liable for trespass. The defendant need not actually damage the property in question, simply being on the land without permission is actionable. One of the only requirements is that the defendant must have come on to the property voluntarily. They would not be liable if, for example, they were left on private land by their kidnappers.
As already discussed, some torts require intent while others require negligence. However, one kind of tort requires neither intent nor negligence; in fact, it demands no showing of fault at all. These are known as strict liability torts.
Strict liability torts are unconcerned with duties of care or the defendant’s mindset. The plaintiff must only demonstrate that the act in question occurred and the defendant is responsible for the act.
The keeping of wild animals is a classic example of an activity that creates strict liability. For example, if someone owns an adult alligator and that alligator bites and maims someone, the owner is liable even if the person bitten instigated the attack.
The law imputes strict liability to activities it finds extraordinarily dangerous. The idea here is that greater legal exposure will force those undertaking these activities to take every necessary precaution to avoid litigation. Additionally, a secondary objective is judicial efficiency. As these cases are often cut and dry (the plaintiff must only provide evidence that the defendant committed the act) they are usually resolved quickly.
Some common strict liability tort claims include:
- Transporting volatile chemicals: If a person is transporting a highly dangerous or toxic chemical, they are automatically liable if that chemical causes someone harm.
- Blasting and demolition: Those using explosives to clear debris or demolish a building are liable if the explosion causes injury or harm.
- Consumer liability: This category can be a bit more slippery, but someone injured by a malfunctioning or poorly designed product can usually bring a claim without showing negligence or intent.
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If a tort lawsuit is successful, the plaintiff will recover financial compensation to address the injuries he suffered because of the defendant’s behavior. This compensation is also known as damages.
Damages don’t simply make the victim feel better, they return him to the condition he enjoyed before the tort. In the parlance of the court, damages make the plaintiff whole again.
The court decides how much damages a plaintiff deserves by assigning a monetary value to the injuries he suffered. There are two kinds of damages, monetary and non-monetary.
Monetary damages address financial losses that are easy to value in money, such as medical debt and lost wages. Proving monetary claims is usually straightforward and can be done by presenting a formal record such as a medical bill, receipt, or pay stub.
Non-monetary damages address abstract harm that doesn’t easily translate into a dollar amount. Included here are injuries such as pain and suffering, mental trauma, and loss of consortium. You cannot prove non-monetary claims with records or documents. Usually, the plaintiff must present expert testimony from a doctor or psychologist to recover these damages.
As mentioned above, damages address the injuries and losses incurred by the plaintiff because of the tort he suffered at the defendant’s hands. However, there is one exception—punitive damages.
Punitive damages go above and beyond compensating the plaintiff with the intent of punishing the defendant. When the court awards punitive damages, it wants to send a message to both the defendant and society that it will not tolerate such behavior.
Courts reserve punitive damages for truly outrageous behavior. Usually, the act has to be worthy of such defaming labels as “wanton and reckless” and “grossly negligent” before the court will consider granting them.
Obviously, punitive damages often equal a huge payday for the plaintiff, who receives a lump of cash that may far outstrip his or her actual losses.
Many states cap punitive damages and restrict them to only certain kinds of cases.
The victim of a tort can have catastrophic consequences for you and your family, no matter the category.
You may have suffered debilitating physical injuries, including permanent disability, requiring surgery and physical therapy. You may even need live-in assistance to perform life’s basic functions.
Even after the physical recovery is over, other obstacles often remain. Aggressive medical treatment leads to towering medical bills. Maybe you cannot work because of your injuries or even lost your job. Lingering mental trauma could make the journey back to normal seem all the more daunting.
Although the circumstances are dire, tort victims don’t have to suffer in silence. They can take legal action with a skilled personal injury attorney against those responsible and compensation for their injuries.