Tort Law: A Layman’s Guide

A hammer and gavel used in a tort law case
  • James Notaris

    CPA, ESQ. Legal Editor

  • Steve Longo

    Executive Editor

    In Brief:

  • Tort law plays a key role in the U.S. legal framework.

  • It deals with legal cases in which someone believes they've been wronged by another. 

  • Tort law is needed to create a legal framework for people and businesses to recover damages as well as to discourage others from harming other people. 

From hot coffee spills to car crashes, tort law encompasses many of the legal cases that go through the nation’s court system on a daily basis. One of the most important, but also complex and misunderstood, types of law in the United States, it’s had a major impact on how everyday Americans go about their daily lives. 

But just what is tort law? Why do we need tort law? What are the specific nuances of this type of law? Here’s a closer look at all of that and more!

What is Tort Law?

Tort law encompasses legal cases in which someone believes that they’ve been wronged. 

Common examples include acts of negligence, invasion of privacy, damages inflicted, and various losses sustained. Much like criminal law, a tort lawsuit’s injury party must prove that they’ve suffered some form of harm or loss. 

Tort law, initially known as common law, first arose in Germany back in the Middle Ages. In this system, perpetrators convicted of crimes such as breach of contract, slander, or trespassing, were forced to pay fines as compensation. If the fines weren’t paid, the defendant faced imprisonment. 

Tort law is often vigorously debated in the legal world. Many people have pushed for reform of tort laws, believing they’re abused simply for financial gain. As a result, many tort law cases are closely intertwined with insurance laws and are settled through a claims adjustment rather than trial in a court of law. The financial compensation the injury party can be awarded is typically based on a ceiling an insurance firm sets for possible payments. 

A famous tort law case was Stella Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants from 1994. The origins of the case date back to February 22, 1992 when 79-year-old Stella Liebeck ordered a cup of hot coffee with her grandson at an Albuquerque, New Mexico McDonald’s drive-thru. 

As their 1989 Ford Probe didn’t have cup holders, her grandson pulled the car into an open parking spot so she could add cream and sugar to her coffee. Liebeck held the cup between her legs so she could remove the lid, but it ultimately spilled on her and completely emptied onto her pelvic region. 

The woman suffered third-degree burns on six percent of her body and remained in a hospital for eight days to undergo multiple skin graft surgeries. During her hospital stay, Liebeck lost 20 pounds and was left permanently disfigured. 

Liebeck looked to settle with McDonald’s for $20,000, the approximate amount of her lost income, current and future medical expenses, and daughter’s lost income during the time she had to take off to care for her. After McDonald’s only offered $800, she retained the rights of Reed Morgan, an attorney based in Texas. 

During a well-publicized trial that took place in August 1994, Liebeck’s legal team uncovered that McDonald’s franchisees were required to heat their coffee between 180 and 190 degrees Fahrenheit, at least 20 degree higher than most other fast food franchises. 

A jury found McDonald’s 80 percent negligent for Liebeck’s injuries due to insufficiently-sized warning labels on their coffee cups and heating their coffee at an unreasonably high temperature before serving it to customers. Liebeck was ultimately awarded $160,000 in compensatory damages and $2.7 million in punitive damages due to this negligence. 

Why Do We Need Tort Law?

Tort law is important because it aims to provide a legal framework that holds both people and businesses accountable for the damages they cause while also discouraging others from doing the same. People who win tort cases can claim compensation for things like lost wages, pain and suffering, medical expenses, and the like. 

Aside from providing monetary compensation for the injury party, tort law also punishes people and companies who hurt others through their negligent conduct, prompting them to think before they act or implement policies designed to prevent injuries. 

Additionally, tort law helps to limit the role of government, as many cases are settled out of court by insurance claims. This often frees up the court system to focus on criminal cases and lets injury parties and their lawyers settle without going through the courts. 

Intentional Tort vs. Unintentional Tort: What’s the Difference?

But is it a tort when, for example, you injure someone accidentally? This is where the difference between intentional tort and unintentional tort comes into play. 

Intentional torts occur when someone intentionally acts in a way that injures others around them. Common examples of intentional torts include trespassing, assault, and battery. 

Unintentional tort, on the other hand, is when an unintended accident leads to injury, financial loss, or property damage. In this type of tort, the person who caused the accident did so inadvertently because they were negligent and didn’t exercise the same amount of care that a reasonable person would have done in the same situation. Examples of unintentional tort include car accidents, workplace accidents, and medical malpractice. 

Golden legal scales used in a tort law negligence case

What is Reasonable Care?

Reasonable care plays a key role in tort law and is defined as the degree of caution a rational person would take in circumstances similar to the case at hand. 

It’s a subjective test that aims to set a minimum standard that must be met, and is designed to determine negligence, which is defined as the failure to act carefully, resulting in the injury or harm of another person. 

An example is when a driver fails to abide by state driving laws, causing an accident that damages another vehicle. Since the driver who caused the accident didn’t provide reasonable care, they may be deemed negligent and held responsible for the damages they caused. 

How Does a Plaintiff Prove That a Defendant Has Been Negligent?

In order for a plaintiff to prove that a defendant has been negligent, they have to prove four things: duty to exercise caution, breach of duty, cause, and harm.

Here's a Closer Look at these Four Factors in Detail

  • Duty to exercise caution is defined as the defendant’s duty to exercise proper caution as to not hurt others around them in any way.
  • Breach of duty is when a defendant fails to exercise a reasonable level of caution while performing their duty.
  • Cause is defined as when the actions of the defendant directly caused some form of harm to the injury party.
  • Harm is the damage suffered by the injury party as a direct result of the defendant’s failure to exercise reasonable care and the harm done to the injury party.

If all four of these things are proven by the plaintiff, the injury party can sue the defendant for negligence. 

What If a Victim is Partly at Fault for an Accident in a Tort Law Case?

The fault of a victim in a tort law case can have a major impact on its outcome. 

Comparative negligence is when the injury party also fails to act with reasonable care in a way that contributes to their injury. This is sometimes used as a legal defense that lowers the amount of damages the injury party can recover based on the degree in which the injury party’s own negligence contributed to their own damage. 

For example, if a plaintiff suffers $100,000 worth of injury and is found by a jury to be 25 percent at fault while the defendant is deemed to be 75 percent at fault, they stand to recover $80,000 worth of damages. 

Comparative negligence laws vary by state. Some states, such as Alabama, Maryland, North Carolina, and Virginia, use the older contributory negligence doctrine, which states that a defense can completely bar a plaintiff from any form of recovery if they contribute to their own injury through their own negligence in any way. 

Can Someone Who Acts With Reasonable Care and Doesn’t Intend to Injure Someone Still Be Liable?

This may seem like a tricky question, but the answer is yes. 

The reason has to do with strict liability, which imposes legal responsibility for damages even if the defendant acted with reasonable care or never intended to injure someone. In this situation, the plaintiff needs only to prove that a tort occurred and the defense was responsible for this damage. Strict liability emphasizes the inherent dangerousness of a situation and generally applies to two broad categories: abnormally dangerous activities and possession of certain animals. 

An example of strict liability is when someone’s dog bites another person walking by them even when they’re leashed. Even though the dog owner practiced reasonable care by leashing the dog and never intending for it to harm the person walking by, they’re still held liable for damages due to strict liability. 

When is a Manufacturer Liable for Any Injuries Caused by Their Products?

Liability also extends to businesses in addition to people in tort law cases. 

This comes in the form of product liability, in which a defendant is liable for damages when the injury party proves that their product is defective. In this case, it’s irrelevant whether a manufacturer exercised reasonable care; if their product is defective and injures someone, they stand to be held liable for it. 

These defects could include design defects present in its design before its even manufactured that make the product flawed in some way and harmful to the consumer, manufacturing defects that occur during the course of the product’s assembly, and marketing defects that are flaws in the way the product is advertised to consumers, such as insufficient safety warnings or improper instructions. 

If strict liability is found to apply to the tort law case, the plaintiff only has to prove that the product itself is defective, and not necessarily that the business responsible for manufacturing the product was negligent. 

What Damages Can a Plaintiff Receive in a Tort Case?

Damages in tort law cases are typically awarded to restore the injury party to the position they were in before the tort occurred. They usually come in the form of money as a form of compensation for a loss or injury. 

Damages are classified as compensatory damages and punitive damages. Compensatory damages are further broken down into special damages, which are financial losses such as property damage or the loss of earnings from a job, and general damages, which are noneconomic damages such as emotional distress. 

Damages are awarded to punish a defendant in the form of punitive damages. Typically, these are not awarded to compensate the injury party, but instead to act as a deterrent and reform the defendant and similar people or businesses from acting in the same way that damaged the injury party. They’re usually only awarded in special cases when the defendant acted with blatant negligence and in a malicious or extremely reckless manner.

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