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The following article is the second in a series about personal injury law. You can read the first article here, which explains where laws come from. This article defines the legal term “tort.” It is written for people who do not have legal training and explains these laws in simple terms. As a result, it should not be relied upon for complete accuracy or as legal advice.
Definition of a Tort
Civil laws are created to resolve disputes. These laws generally cover torts and breaches of contract. Anything that does not involve a breach of contract is a tort. “Tort” is a catchall term applied to a group of civil wrongs. The basis of tort law is the failure of an unspoken duty owed to another.
The word “tort” comes from the Latin word “torquere,” which means “something twisted or wrong.” The person responsible for committing the “twisted act” is labeled the “tortfeasor.” The wrongdoer is also known as the defendant in a civil suit. The injured person is referred to as the plaintiff.
The plaintiff’s goal in a tort lawsuit is to recover money to place his or herself in the same position he would have been absent the tort.
Conduct on the part of a “tortfeasor” can result in civil and criminal action. The primary purpose of civil tort law is to make the wrongdoer compensate the injured party with money damages. The primary purpose of criminal law is to punish the wrongdoer. Here are some examples of how both areas of law come together:
Bar Fights Can Lead to Both Civil and Criminal Claims
Presume there is a barfight, where a bad guy punches someone in the face without justification. First, the bad guy has committed the crime of battery. A prosecutor will bring charges against the bad guy on behalf of the state. The prosecution can result in criminal penalties, like jail time. Second, the bad guy has committed the tort of battery. A personal injury lawyer can bring a lawsuit against the bad guy on behalf of the victim. The lawsuit can result in a recovery for medical bills and pain & suffering. Criminal and civil lawsuits are completely independent of each other. If the prosecutor chooses not to bring charges, the victim can still pursue a personal injury lawsuit. If the victim chooses not to seek compensation, the state can still pursue criminal charges.
Murder May Result in Jail Time and a Wrongful Death Claim
One of the most infamous murder cases that was tried both criminally and civilly is the O.J. Simpson case. While Simpson was not convicted in the criminal case, he was found to be responsible for the deaths of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman. The families of the murder victims were awarded $33.5 million in 1997.
A Motor Vehicle Wreck Might Lead to a Criminal Ticket and a Civil Lawsuit
If a driver has been drinking alcoholic beverages and has a traffic wreck resulting in the death of another person, that person is subject to both criminal and civil charges. The criminal charges would be for negligent homicide or manslaughter. The civil cause would be based on negligence for wrongful death.
Types of Civil Cases
In the civil world, the three main bases for tort cases are:
- Intentional Acts
- Strict Liability
Negligence is the most commonly filed tort claim. This is something the “tortfeasor” did or neglected to do that caused harm to another. That person’s (or company’s) negligence caused loss, damage, or injury to another. In its simplest terms, negligence means that the tortfeasor was careless or did something wrong. The basis for this tort has nothing to do with intentionally causing another harm.
In Georgia, the jurors are instructed that the “standard of care” is as follows:
Ordinary negligence means the absence of or the failure to use that degree of care that is used by ordinarily careful persons under the same or similar circumstances.
A good example of this would be an inattentive driver who is texting and hits another car, causing injuries. A normal careful driver does not text and drive. This driver failed to comply with the standard of care and caused harm. As a result, he committed a tort and may be held liable in a civil lawsuit.
Intentional Acts of Harm
Intentional torts are just that – a person (or a company) intentionally commits an act that causes harm to someone else. A common example for an intentional tort is battery. A battery is the touching of someone else in a harmful or offensive manner without consent. Battery ranges from a violent punch to an inappropriate pat on the butt. In Georgia, jurors receive the following instruction for intentional torts:
Intent is ordinarily ascertained from acts and conduct. You may not presume the defendant acted with specific intent to harm, but intent may be shown in many ways, provided that you find that it existed from the evidence produced. The jury may find such intent, or the absence of it, upon consideration of the words, conduct, demeanor, motive, and all the other circumstances connected with the alleged act.
As explained by the instruction, intent does not require an intent to harm – but merely requires an intent to commit the act.
Strict Liability and Corporations
The basis for this tort has nothing to do with negligence or intention. Strict liability cases typically involve the manufacturer or seller of an unreasonably dangerous product. These include defective cars and defective tires.
Courts have determined that manufacturers and sellers of harmful products should be financially responsible for the harm that product causes others. These manufacturers and sellers stand to profit from the product and have the legal burden to guard against defects in their products.
The manufacturer of a product that is sold as new property may be liable or responsible to any person who is injured because of a defect in the product that existed at the time the manufacturer sold the product. However, a manufacturer of a product is not an insurer, and the fact that a product may cause an injury does not necessarily make the manufacturer liable. To recover damages under this rule, a person injured by an allegedly defective product must establish the following three elements by a preponderance of the evidence:
- the product was defective,
- the defect existed at the time the product left the manufacturer’s control, and
- the defect in the product was the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injury.
Torts are Vital to The Civil Justice System
The vast majority of cases that the Wetherington Law Firm handles involve torts. Attorney Matt Wetherington is recognized nationwide for his efforts to protect the civil justice system. Here is Wetherington speaking at the Grand Opening of the United States Tort Museum:
Torts Lead to Civil Lawsuits
Read on to learn more about how torts work in civil liability actions through personal injury lawsuits. The next article in this series covers the element of duty that must be proven in civil lawsuits.