Street Law: A Course in Practical Law

Chapter 18: Torts: A Civil Wrong

Chapter Overviews

The Idea of Liability  Under criminal law, wrongs committed are called crimes. Under civil law, wrongs committed are called torts. In civil cases, the injured party (the plaintiff) can sue the person believed to be legally responsible for the harm (the defendant). Tort law establishes an expectation that people should act with reasonable care toward other people and their property. A defendant found responsible for injuring the plaintiff will usually be ordered to pay the plaintiff money, called damages. Damages are meant to compensate the plaintiff for any financial, physical, or emotional costs associated with the injury. The plaintiff does not always need to sue in order to receive damages. Often the two parties can meet and make an agreement—or settlement—on compensation for the injury.

The Idea of Torts: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow  Tort law has changed over time to reflect changes in society and its values. State courts handle most tort cases. Tort law is generally based on common law, which is created through court decisions written by judges. Tort law can also be based on written laws, known as statutes, which are passed by state legislatures.

Types of Torts  There are three major types of tort liability—intentional wrongs, acts of negligence, and strict liability. An intentional wrong occurs when a person purposefully harms another person or his or her property. Negligence—the most common unintentional tort—occurs when one person unintentionally inflicts injury upon another person. Even though the injury was not intentional, the person who caused injury can still be held liable for acting carelessly and causing harm. Strict liability requires people engaged in certain dangerous activities to assume extra responsibility for the consequences of their actions.

Taking Your Case to Court  Tort law deals with disputes between individuals or groups of individuals. Unlike criminal law, the government is not responsible for bringing the case to court, and defendants never go to prison. While both criminal law and tort law require substantial evidence to prove the defendant is responsible, criminal cases require more convincing evidence. Although a tort and a crime are different legal actions, the same harmful activity can sometimes be both a crime and a tort.

Almost anyone can be sued. Employers may be responsible for many of the torts committed by their employees, and in some states parents can be sued for torts committed by their children. Children who commit torts may be sued if it can be proven that the child acted unreasonably for a person of that age. A class action suit occurs when a group of plaintiffs sues a defendant as a group.

Insurance  Liability insurance is an agreement in which the insured person makes regular payments to an insurance company. In return, the insurance company agrees to pay for certain damages the insured person might cause. Liability insurance protects doctors, lawyers, manufacturers, homeowners, and drivers. Although many types of insurance exist, very few insurance policies cover a person who has committed an intentional harm.

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