What Is Unintentional Tort?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

An unintentional tort is a civil wrong caused by an accident, not by deliberate malice. For example, if someone leaves a banana peel on the sidewalk and a passerby slips and breaks a leg, this is an unintentional tort; the banana-eater didn’t intend to harm the passerby, but an injury still occurred. Negligence of this nature is the most common example of an unintentional tort, and can become the basis of a court case to claim compensation.

An unintentional tort caused by an accident, not by deliberate malice.
An unintentional tort caused by an accident, not by deliberate malice.

In negligence cases, the plaintiff must prove that the respondent committed an unintentional tort and should be obliged to pay for the consequences. Four separate criteria must be satisfied for the court to rule in favor of the plaintiff. The first is that there was a duty of care in the situation; the respondent was obliged to exercise some caution on behalf of the plaintiff, such as not hitting baseballs in the direction of the plaintiff’s house.

Some situations involve an increased duty of care. Professionals like doctors, lawyers, and accountants are required to exercise more caution than the average person because of their qualifications; they typically command a higher degree of trust from clients. Likewise, hosts can be held to a higher standard for serving alcohol, a known risk, and manufacturers can be subject to higher standards under products liability law.

After proving duty of care, the plaintiff must be able to show that the respondent failed to act as a reasonable person did in the same situation. A doctor who doesn’t order a common test, for example, might be violating common practice standards and thus could be held liable for an unintentional tort under this standard. The “reasonable person” should be someone in a similar position with an average level of knowledge.

The respondent’s actions must also have directly caused the unintentional tort. If a tree-limber drops a limb on someone’s car, for instance, this is a clear cause and effect relationship. Furthermore, the plaintiff must be able to prove that the incident resulted in material damage, which may include property destruction, injury, or emotional harm. A banana peel on the sidewalk is not inherently an unintentional tort, for example; it must actually cause harm to someone if it is to be grounds for a court case.

Compensation in such cases can vary widely, depending on the nature of the damage. Courts may be specifically barred from assessing damages over the actual harm caused, although in some cases the respondent may be separately fined or penalized. In a malpractice suit, for example, a doctor might have to pay for damages and could be suspended from practice by a professional organization.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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