What is a Tort?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 25 March 2020
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When someone commits a harmful act which leaves him or her open to a lawsuit which could result in an award of damages, this is known as a tort. Torts can be intentional or brought about through negligence, and they run the gamut from hitting someone while driving drunk to neglecting to fix the plumbing in a home, causing flood damage. If someone is convicted of a tort, also called a civil wrong, he or she will be required to compensate the victim with damages. In some cases, it is possible to violate both civil and criminal law, resulting in jail time and an order of compensation.

A tort does not necessarily involve an unlawful act. For example, in many regions of the world, it is perfectly legal to adjust the controls on your car radio as you drive. If, however, you hit someone while adjusting your radio, you will be accused of negligent driving, and you will be liable for a tort suit. A tort can also involve a breach of common expectations, like the idea that restaurant owners should check their food to ensure that it is safe to eat.


There are a number of different types of torts, including economic torts, which involve damage to someone's business, defamation torts, in which people cause harm to someone or an organization by spreading false information, and nuisance torts, in which the peaceful enjoyment of property is disturbed by things like pollution or loose animals. Many torts are negligence torts, with a lawsuit being filed because someone failed to do his or her basic duty.

In many cases, people are required to get liability insurance to cover themselves in case they are involved in a tort suit. For example, doctors in many parts of the world must have malpractice insurance, which pays damages in the event that a doctor is convicted of negligence on the job. Landlords can also get such insurance to protect themselves from tenant suits, and drivers often carry liability insurance in case they hit other people.

As you might imagine, tort law is extremely complex, and several courses in law schools are devoted to the issue of torts. Tort reform has also become a topic of hot discussion, especially in the United States, where citizens are notoriously lawsuit happy, willing to sue in almost any circumstances in the hopes of obtaining reparations for things ranging from spilled coffee to spilled chemicals.


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Post 3

@David09 - There are extremes, I agree, and there may be need for tort reform. However, the fact is there are genuine cases of neglect where people are injured, and in those cases you will need a good tort lawyer.

If an oil tanker spills oil in the Gulf, for example, and lives are lost, in addition to entire local economies being destroyed, you’d better believe that you need a good tort lawyer—or a team of them—to represent you.

Post 2

@David09 - If you’ve heard it used in the media you’ve probably heard it in the context of “tort reform.” It’s an unfortunate fact of life that we have lawyers who have become so trigger happy when it comes to filing lawsuits that we need to debate limits on lawsuits.

Businesses and even some individuals are told to get tort liability insurance just to protect themselves from people looking to make a quick buck on feigned “accidents.”

I’m against any and all so-called frivolous lawsuits. I realize the term frivolous is open to interpretation, but some things are so patently foolish that it’s amazing a lawyer, much less a court, would even consider them. You can sue anyone for just about anything. You can go to a fast food place, eat a greasy burger, and if you’re feeling even a little sick afterwards, you can sue them for making you sick.

Post 1

My wife was in an auto accident recently. Actually what happened was that she was in a tennis court and one of the coaches accidentally let a cart filled with tennis balls roll and hit her car. She was told to go to the local courthouse and fill out a tort form.

That was the first time that I had ever heard the word tort used in such a context. I guess it would apply, however, since there was no ill intent and therefore it would be classified as a negligence tort. I've heard the word used in the media before but had never had anyone actually define tort. This article puts everything in perspective.

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