A tort is an act or omission that gives rise to injury or harm to another and amounts to a civil wrong for which courts impose liability. In the context of torts, "injury" describes the invasion of any legal right, whereas "harm" describes a loss or detriment in fact that an individual suffers.1
The primary aims of tort law are to provide relief to injured parties for harms caused by others, to impose liability on parties responsible for the harm, and to deter others from committing harmful acts. Torts can shift the burden of loss from the injured party to the party who is at fault or better suited to bear the burden of the loss. Typically, a party seeking redress through tort law will ask for damages in the form of monetary compensation. Less common remedies include injunction and restitution.
The boundaries of tort law are defined by common law and state statutory law. Judges, in interpreting the language of statutes, have wide latitude in determining which actions qualify as legally cognizable wrongs, which defenses may override any given claim, and the appropriate measure of damages. Although tort law varies by state, many courts utilize the Restatement of Torts (2nd) as an influential guide.
Torts fall into three general categories: intentional torts (e.g., intentionally hitting a person); negligent torts (e.g., causing an accident by failing to obey traffic rules); and strict liability torts (e.g., liability for making and selling defective products - see Products Liability). Intentional torts are wrongs that the defendant knew or should have known would result through his or her actions or omissions. Negligent torts occur when the defendant's actions were unreasonably unsafe. Unlike intentional and negligent torts, strict liability torts do not depend on the degree of care that the defendant used. Rather, in strict liability cases, courts focus on whether a particular result or harm manifested.
There are numerous specific torts including trespass, assault, battery, negligence, products liability, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. There are also separate areas of tort law including nuisance, defamation, invasion of privacy, and a category of economic torts.
Aims of Tort Law
Development of Tort Law
Bases of Liability
The law recognizes torts as civil wrongs and allows injured parties to recover for their losses. Injured parties may bring suit to recover damages in the form of monetary compensation or for an injunction, which compels a party to cease an activity. In certain cases, courts will award punitive damages in addition to compensatory damages to deter further misconduct.
In the vast majority of tort cases, the court will award compensatory damages to an injured party that has successfully proven his or her case.10 Compensatory damages are typically equal to the monetary value of the injured party's loss of earnings, loss of future earning capacity, pain and suffering, and reasonable medical expenses. Thus, courts may award damages for incurred as well as expected losses.
When the court has an interest in deterring future misconduct, the court may award punitive damages in addition to compensatory damages. For example, in a case against a manufacturer for a defectively manufactured product, a court may award punitive damages to compel the manufacturer to ensure more careful production going forward.
In some cases, injured parties may bring suit to obtain an injunction rather than monetary relief. Courts grant injunctions infrequently, and the party seeking an injunction must prove that it would suffer considerable or irreparable harm without the court's intervention.
Distinguishing Torts from Other Bases of Liability
Torts are distinguishable from crimes, which are wrongs against the state or society at large. The main purpose of criminal liability is to enforce public justice. In contrast, tort law addresses private wrongs and has a central purpose of compensating the victim rather than punishing the wrongdoer.2 Additionally, criminal liability requires intent, whereas most tort actions do not. Nonetheless, some acts may also provide a basis for both tort and criminal liability. For example, gross negligence that endangers the lives of others may simultaneously be a tort and a crime.3
Tort law is also distinct from contract law. Although a party may have a strong breach of contract case under contract law, a breach of contract is not typically considered a tortious act.4
- Restatement (Second) of Torts § 7
- Dobbs' Law of Torts § 1
- Dobbs' Law of Torts § 1
- Dobbs' Law of Torts § 1
Menu of Sources
U.S. Constitution and Federal Statutes
- U.S. Code: 28 U.S.C., Chapter 171 - Federal Torts Claim Act (governs tort claims against the U.S.)
- CRS Annotated Constitution
Federal Judicial Decisions
- U.S. Supreme Court:
- U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals: Recent Torts Law Decisions
State Judicial Decisions
- N.Y. Court of Appeals:
- Appellate Decisions from Other States
Key Internet Sources
Useful Offnet (or Subscription - $) Sources
- Good Starting Point in Print: Prosser and Keeton, Hornbook on Torts, West Group (1984)