A Helpful Introduction to Torts
What are Torts?:
A tort is a civil wrong committed against someone, in which the injured party can sue for damages. In personal injury cases, the injured party will attempt to receive compensation to cover losses due to medical expenses and to pay for damages.
Tort law determines whether a person may be held legally responsible for injury against another, and what type of compensation the injured party is entitled to. There are four elements to tort law: duty, breach of the duty, causation, and injury. In order to claim damages there must be a breach in the duty of the defendant to the plaintiff which results in injury to the plaintiff. The three main types of torts are negligence, strict liability, and intentional torts.
Tort, Crime, and Punitive Damages:
Torts are civil wrongs that are committed against an individual and cause harm to that individual. Sometimes, depending on the nature of a tort, it may also be considered a crime. Intentional torts occur when the defendant is aware that his actions will cause injury to another. In cases of intentional torts, criminal prosecution may be brought against a defendant as well as civil action.
There are two types of damages claimed in tort law: compensatory and punitive. Punitive damages are exceptional damages offered to the plaintiff when the injuries caused by the defendant were particularly heinous in nature, and are often awarded in intentional torts. The purpose of punitive damages in tort law is to punish the defendant for wrongdoing, deter future wrongdoing, and reward the plaintiff for pain and suffering.
Policy and Process:
Because the process of developing tort law is influenced heavily by precedence, there is a common public interest in the outcome of tort cases. The public has good reason to expect that they may be affected by the same policy in the future. Tort law deals with the process of weighing the interests of both parties in order to achieve a fair outcome, which can often be achieved by applying policy.
However, when a court decides a case where no precedence has been set, they are affecting future policy. The process of developing tort law is constantly changing due to rulings in issues of first impression and by overruling outdated precedents.
Factors Affecting Tort Liability:
In order to determine liability in tort law, a court must decide whether the act committed by the defendant was unlawful and if there is a need for the defendant to compensate the plaintiff for the injuries incurred.
Precedence is a large part of tort law; past judicial decisions will effect the opinion of the court. How each of the parties will bear the loss is also considered in determining liability. If the defendant is a larger group with the ability to shift its losses, as opposed to the plaintiff who may be financially ruined due to the injuries incurred, the courts may find a greater reason to hold the defendants responsible. The court will also determine whether the defendant's actions are due to negligence or a strict liability tort.
Motive is the reasons behind a person's actions and may be broken down into intent and ulterior motive. Motive is taken into account in determining liability especially in cases where the defendant's and plaintiff's argument is evenly matched. Especially in cases of aggravated offenses, such as fraud, violence, or cruelty, the defendant's improper motive will make it more likely for the plaintiff to receive punitive damages, which reward the plaintiff for pain and suffering.
In regards to personal injury law, motive is examined based on negligence and intentional torts. A person's motive in cases of negligence, when careless actions cause harm, is not to intentionally injure the plaintiff. Intentional torts, however, include motives to cause harm to another person.
History- Trespass and Case:
Historically, a plaintiff could not bring suit against a defendant without obtaining a writ from the King which demanded that the case be heard before the courts. This system was very strict and only allowed for a plaintiff to collect damages under only two conditions: the action of trespass or the action of trespass on the case. The action of trespass is primarily related to criminal action- direct injuries to a plaintiff caused by a defendant.
Trespass on the case deals injuries that could be traced back to the defendant's actions as a secondary cause. If the defendant's actions indirectly set into motion other actions which injured a plaintiff, the defendant could be held liable for trespass on the case. This concept of holding a defendant liable for causing injury to another and forcing the defendant to compensate for these injuries is where modern tort law originated.
In order to file a claim for personal injury and hold a defendant liable for compensation, a plaintiff must file a complaint and summon the defendant. This must be done within the statute of limitations, which is typically three years from the time of the accident. It is beneficial for a plaintiff to file a lawsuit immediately because there is a process of discovery and depositions which must take place before the case goes to trial.
During this process all evidence and witnesses may be examined and questioned by both parties' attorneys. The parties are also given the option to settle the case, which may be facilitated by a mediator. If no settlement is reached, the case proceeds to trial where a judge or a judge and jury decide the case.