Introduction to Tort Law for The Lay Person

Donovan & Morello, LLP April 15, 2024

What Is Tort Law?

A tort is an act or omission that causes legally cognizable harm to persons or property. Tort law is the body of rules concerned with remedying harms caused by a person's wrongful or injurious actions.

For instance, if a surgeon amputates the wrong leg of a patient, that patient may be able to pursue a tort lawsuit alleging medical negligence and seeking monetary damages against the surgeon.

With a few exceptions, tort law is generally governed by state law, not federal law. Typically and historically, Tort law has also been a development of the common law, rather than statutory law. What that means is that judges (not the legislature) have developed tort law's fundamental principles through case-by-case adjudication. This has been changing recently as state legislatures and Congress have begun to enact federal tort law statutes.

Why Does Tort Law Exist?

Tort law serves three purposes. First, it provides compensation by way of money damages for injuries resulting from a person's wrongful conduct. Second, it can provide a deterrent to dissuade other persons from acting in ways that may produce harm. Third, it can provide a way of punishing people who wrongfully injure others.

Categories of Torts


The most common example of a tort is a negligence claim. For example, a motorist who crosses the center line of a highway and causes a collision that injures another motorist or pedestrian has committed a tort by driving negligently.

To prove a defendant's negligence, a plaintiff must ordinarily prove the following:

1. The defendant owed a duty to the plaintiff. (A motorist must drive their vehicle reasonably under the circumstances so as not to injury other motorist or pedestrian. Land owners generally owe the people invited onto their property the duty to make sure that the property does not contain structural or other defects that could cause injury.)

2. The defendant breached a duty owed by acting carelessly or by failing to act reasonably.

3. The plaintiff sustained injury, either bodily injury or property damage.

4. The defendant's breach of duty caused the plaintiffs injury.

In some cases, a defendant may be liable for injuries resulting from a third party's negligence. For example, if an employee negligently causes a motor vehicle collision while driving a company car, the driver's employer may be liable for any consequent injuries.

Strict Liability and Products Liability

Unlike negligence, Strict liability torts impose liability without regard to the defendant's level of care. One example of a strict liability tort is products liability. A plaintiff injured by a defective product may recover damages from the seller of that product without having to prove that the seller acted negligently.

Intentional Torts

Neither negligence of strict or products liability require the plaintiff to prove that the defendant intended to cause injury. For example, A driver who negligently causes a car crash, for instance, may be liable even if they did not mean to cause the collision.

Intentional torts on the other hand, do require the plaintiff to prove that the defendant intentionally caused harm. A common example of an intentional tort is assault or battery, that is an intention striking of another person's body, or slander or libel. A defendant found liable for an intentional tort is responsible for both compensatory damages (medical bills, pain and suffering etc.) but may be held liable for additional damages, such as punitive damages and attorney's fees, which can act as a deterrent from engaging in similar conduct in the future.

Tort Remedies

A plaintiff who proves that a defendant has committed a tort can potentially recover monetary damages, consisting of compensatory damages (pain and suffering, the expenses of medical treatment, lost wages etc.) as well as punitive damages in certain causes. In exceptional circumstances in which a defendant has engaged in particularly outrageous behavior, a plaintiff might also recover punitive damages (i.e., damages in excess of compensatory damages intended solely to punish the defendant for their conduct).