The Law of Torts

Someone did something that injured you.  Can you sue them?  The answer to the question may seem absurdly simple, but like nearly everything having to do with the law, it is anything but.  Personal injury law is called “tort law,” and the type of harm that you suffer is known as a “tort.” In a nutshell, a tort is any act which wrongfully causes someone else to suffer loss or harm.  The person who undertook the act is called a “tortfeasor,” and is legally responsible (or “liable”) for the damages that may result.

It is important to note the difference between torts that occur as a result of an accident or carelessness on the part of the tortfeasor, and certain crimes and other deliberate acts that result in personal injury, such as assault and battery.  These deliberate acts are certainly torts, the victim of the harm can recover their loss as damages in a lawsuit, as long as they can prove that the person responsible cause the injury.   Tort lawsuits have a lower burden of proof than criminal cases, in which the prosecutor must prove that the defendant is guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.”  Your burden in a tort case is to prove that the defendant is liable based on a preponderance of the evidence (more likely than not).


Because the overwhelming bulk of personal injury cases stem from accidental injuries (mainly because there’s often insurance involved), this article is going to focus on those types of torts.  This area of tort law is commonly called negligence, which comes from the Latin term negligentia, which means neglect (literally “not to pick up something”). The legal definition of negligence is a failure to exercise the care that a reasonably prudent person would exercise in like circumstances.  Negligence involves harm caused by carelessness, not intentional harm.

A person can be considered negligent whenever he or she had a duty to act carefully and failed to do so. Generally, we all have an obligation to act with ordinary and reasonable care in any given situation — that is, in a manner that will not foreseeably injure someone else.   This concept of foreseeable injury is a crucial element of negligence.  Failure to stop at a stop sign is negligence, because any reasonable driver would know that doing so would increase the chances of causing a traffic accident.

However, if a person lights a string of firecrackers in his backyard and the sudden noise causes his neighbor has a heart attack, that would not likely be deemed negligence, because the person had no way of knowing that his act would injure someone in that manner.