What the heck is a “tort”?

A “tort” is a wrongful act leading to legal liability.  Isn’t that helpful? Don’t you feel scholarly?

Hmmm. Don’t feel bad, I didn’t feel very knowledgeable when I first heard the word “tort” in law school.  The definition didn’t help, either.  Maybe this will.  Generally, a tort is a civil wrong inflicted upon one person by another such that the actor (the inflictor) is liable for any harm he caused to the first person.  Did that help?

Yes, now I am laughing. 🙂  But, really, I promise I will explain.  Starting now.

  • A Civil wrong. A civil wrong isn’t the same as a crime.  Some things can be BOTH criminally wrong and civilly wrong (say, negligent homicide for example.) But, some torts are not crimes.  For example, if I am the cause of a car accident in the rain in which you were injured – yes, I should have slowed down and been more careful in the rain, but if I was under the speed limit, and my wipers were working and my lights were on, and I wasn’t drinking or texting, then I likely won’t get a ticket for the collision, but I still might have been negligent (a civil wrong).
  • Inflicted. Who did it? Why did they do it? Did they mean to do it? Did they do it negligently, recklessly, willfully, wantonly? All these things matter.  If you have the wrong actor, then that person cannot be held liable.  If I am not the one that pushed you onto the train tracks, I cannot be liable for your injuries. Maybe.  Perhaps I pushed the person next to you and they fell onto you and you fell onto the tracks. Then I will be liable.  But if I pushed a guy into the river, and he got out and was angry and drove to the train station, and in a fit of pique over being wet pushed you onto the train tracks, then I am not liable for your injuries, he is liable for your injuries.  I’m responsible if he got hurt falling into the river, but not liable to you.  This is called proximate causeA person is only liable for those injuries he proximately causes.  There can be more than one proximate cause. (More about that some other time!)
  • This concept is also intricately tied to another called “Duty.” I’ll talk about that one on another day, as well.  In the example above, if I pushed the guy into the river, I don’t have any duty to make sure he doesn’t go push you onto the train tracks.  If I can’t foresee that he might do that, and I don’t know who you and don’t instruct or plan for that to happen, I have no duty and therefore no liability in your injuries, even if you die.
  • Harm. The harm that the actor inflicts is called, collectively, the damages.  Damages range from small things like trespass to person (in other words, you touched me without my permission) to death, and from nominal costs (where a jury awards a few dollars to show that there was a loss) to medical bills and lost wage claims in the millions of dollars.  Obviously, it depends upon the type of harm, or injury that was inflicted by the actor.  Damages are proven by evidence such as medical bills and records, direct testimony, payroll records, demonstrative evidence, photographs, videos, and virtually any other form of admissible evidence.

So, what is a tort?  A tort is an civil wrong that causes injury, large or small, to a person, inflicted by another person who becomes liable to the first person because his action is the proximate cause of the harmful injury.