Tort Law: What It Is and How It Works, With Examples

What Is Tort Law?

Tort law is the area of the law that covers most civil suits. In general, any claim that arises in civil court, with the exception of contractual disputes, falls under tort law.

The concept of tort law is to redress a wrong done to a person and provide relief from the wrongful acts of others, usually by awarding monetary damages as compensation. The original intent of tort is to provide full compensation for proved harms.

Lawsuits involving contracts fall under contract law.

Tort law requires those who are found to be at fault for harming others to compensate the victims. Typical harms include the loss of past or future income, payment of medical expenses, and payment for pain and suffering. There may also be additional punitive damages that are meant to punish the plaintiff in excess of full compensation.

Key Takeaways

  • Tort law is the branch of the law that deals with civil suits, with the exception of disputes involving contracts.
  • Tort law is considered to be a form of restorative justice since it seeks to remedy losses or injury by providing monetary compensation.
  • There are three main categories of tort law, including suits alleging negligence, intentional harm, and strict liability.

Understanding Tort Law

Tort law can be split into three categories: negligent torts, intentional torts, and strict liability torts.

  • Negligent torts are harms done to people through the failure of another to exercise a certain level of care, usually defined as a reasonable standard of care. Accidents are a standard example of negligent torts.
  • Intentional torts are harms that have been caused by the willful misconduct of another, such as assault, fraud, and theft.
  • Strict liability torts, unlike negligence and intentional torts, are not concerned with the culpability of the person doing the harm. Instead, such cases focus on the act itself. If someone or some entity commits a certain act—for example, producing a defective product—that person or company is responsible for the damage done, regardless of the level of care exercised or their intentions.

Examples of Tort Law

A Liability Case

In February 2016, a self-driving car made by Google crashed into a bus in Mountain View, Calif. The car sensed a group of sandbags positioned around a storm drain and swerved into another lane to avoid them, slamming into the side of a public transit bus. This was the first reported case of a self-driving car causing an accident, not just being a part of one.

According to liability tort law, drivers can seek compensation from a manufacturer for a faulty part of a car, usually an airbag or a tire. However, this liability tort now extends to self-driving cars, and Google and others in the nascent self-driving vehicle business could be found liable for the damages.

A Negligence Case

Amy Williams filed a negligence lawsuit against Quest Diagnostics and its subsidiary Athena Diagnostics for the wrongful death of her two-year-old son, Christian Millare.

In 2007, Athena Diagnostics misclassified a mutation in Millare's gene. The plaintiff argued that the misclassification led the child's doctors to use the wrong treatment for his symptoms. The mutation directly resulted in his seizure and death in 2008.

In 2018, 11 years after the child's death, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled that a genetic testing lab could be classified as a healthcare provider under state law.

An Intentional Tort Case

An example of an intentional tort is the ruling between the website Gawker and pro wrestler Hulk Hogan on March 18, 2016.

Hogan was awarded $140 million in damages since it was deemed that Gawker intentionally invaded his privacy in order to obtain video evidence of a private act.

Tort Reform

The issue of tort reform relates to the critical stance taken against many tort cases, especially in the United States. Proponents of tort reform argue that many lawsuits today are frivolous.

According to the Court Statistics Project, approximately 11.7 million civil lawsuits were filed in state trial courts in the United States in 2020, and advocates of tort reform claim that far too many of these are based on flimsy grounds, or are filed to intimidate or influence outcomes.

These frivolous cases are expensive and time-consuming, using up public resources that could be better expended elsewhere.

Advocates of tort reform in the U.S. have especially focused on lawsuits related to medical malpractice claims and allegations of billing overcharges, including the unnecessary use of costly medical tests and the high price of drugs due to patents.

Article Sources
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  1. U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform. "Torts of the Future: Autonomous Vehicles."

  2. South Carolina Judicial Branch-The State of South Carolina in the Supreme Court. "Amy Elizabeth Williams, as the Personal Representative of the Estate for Deceased Minor; and Amy Elizabeth Williams, Individually, Plaintiffs, v. Quest Diagnostics, Inc., Athena Diagnostics, Inc., and ADI Holdings, Inc., Defendants. Appellate Case No. 2017-000787."

  3. First Amendment Watch. "Hulk Hogan v. Gawker: Invasion of Privacy and Free Speech in a Digital World."

  4. Court Statistics Project. "Trial Court Caseload Overview: Caseload Detail—Total Civil."

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