For this Assignment, you will assume the role of a junior legal assistant for the legal department of XYZ Corporation. The organization has recently undertaken a number of efforts to increase its presence in the local community and is promoting corporate social responsibility and positive social change initiatives. The CEO, Isabella Torres, feels strongly that in order to have the most beneficial effects in the community, the company needs to set a good example by having a workforce that is serious about compliance and adherence to regulations. She is committed to the idea that in order to “do good,” you have to “be good” in all aspects of the business.
Introduction to Tort Law
In civil litigation, contract and tort claims are by far the most numerous. The law attempts to adjust for harms done by awarding damages to a successful plaintiff who demonstrates that the defendant was the cause of the plaintiff’s losses. Torts can be intentional torts, negligent torts, or strict liability torts. Employers must be aware that in many circumstances, their employees may create liability in tort. This chapter explains the different kind of torts, as well as available defenses to tort claims.
Purpose of Tort Laws
- Explain why a sound market system requires tort law.
- Define a tort and give two examples.
- Explain the moral basis of tort liability.
- Understand the purposes of damage awards in tort.
Definition of Tort
The term tort is the French equivalent of the English word wrong. The word tort is also derived from the Latin word tortum, which means twisted or crooked or wrong, in contrast to the word rectum,which means straight (rectitude uses that Latin root). Thus conduct that is twisted or crooked and not straight is a tort. The term was introduced into the English law by the Norman jurists.
Long ago, tort was used in everyday speech; today it is left to the legal system. A judge will instruct a jury that a tort is usually defined as a wrong for which the law will provide a remedy, most often in the form of money damages. The law does not remedy all “wrongs.” The preceding definition of tort does not reveal the underlying principles that divide wrongs in the legal sphere from those in the moral sphere. Hurting someone’s feelings may be more devastating than saying something untrue about him behind his back; yet the law will not provide a remedy for saying something cruel to someone directly, while it may provide a remedy for “defaming” someone, orally or in writing, to others.
Although the word is no longer in general use, tort suits are the stuff of everyday headlines. More and more people injured by exposure to a variety of risks now seek redress (some sort of remedy through the courts). Headlines boast of multimillion-dollar jury awards against doctors who bungled operations, against newspapers that libeled subjects of stories, and against oil companies that devastate entire ecosystems. All are examples of tort suits.
The law of torts developed almost entirely in the common-law courts; that is, statutes passed by legislatures were not the source of law that plaintiffs usually relied on. Usually, plaintiffs would rely on the common law (judicial decisions). Through thousands of cases, the courts have fashioned a series of rules that govern the conduct of individuals in their noncontractual dealings with each other. Through contracts, individuals can craft their own rights and responsibilities toward each other. In the absence of contracts, tort law holds individuals legally accountable for the consequences of their actions. Those who suffer losses at the hands of others can be compensated.
Many acts (like homicide) are both criminal and tortious. But torts and crimes are different, and the difference is worth noting. A crime is an act against the people as a whole. Society punishes the murderer; it does not usually compensate the family of the victim. Tort law, on the other hand, views the death as a private wrong for which damages are owed. In a civil case, the tort victim or his family, not the state, brings the action. The judgment against a defendant in a civil tort suit is usually expressed in monetary terms, not in terms of prison times or fines, and is the legal system’s way of trying to make up for the victim’s loss.
Kinds of Torts
There are three kinds of torts: intentional torts, negligent torts, and strict liability torts. Intentional torts arise from intentional acts, whereas unintentional torts often result from carelessness (e.g., when a surgical team fails to remove a clamp from a patient’s abdomen when the operation is finished). Both intentional torts and negligent torts imply some fault on the part of the defendant. In strict liability torts, by contrast, there may be no fault at all, but tort law will sometimes require a defendant to make up for the victim’s losses even where the defendant was not careless and did not intend to do harm.
Dimensions of Tort Liability
There is a clear moral basis for recovery through the legal system where the defendant has been careless (negligent) or has intentionally caused harm. Using the concepts that we are free and autonomous beings with basic rights, we can see that when others interfere with either our freedom or our autonomy, we will usually react negatively. As the old saying goes, “Your right to swing your arm ends at the tip of my nose.” The law takes this even one step further: under intentional tort law, if you frighten someone by swinging your arms toward the tip of her nose, you may have committed the tort of assault, even if there is no actual touching (battery).
Under a capitalistic market system, rational economic rules also call for no negative externalities. That is, actions of individuals, either alone or in concert with others, should not negatively impact third parties. The law will try to compensate third parties who are harmed by your actions, even as it knows that a money judgment cannot actually mend a badly injured victim.
Figure 7.1 Dimensions of Tort Liability.
Dimensions of Tort: Fault
Tort principles can be viewed along different dimensions. One is the fault dimension. Like criminal law, tort law requires a wrongful act by a defendant for the plaintiff to recover. Unlike criminal law, however, there need not be a specific intent. Since tort law focuses on injury to the plaintiff, it is less concerned than criminal law about the reasons for the defendant’s actions. An innocent act or a relatively innocent one may still provide the basis for liability. Nevertheless, tort law—except for strict liability—relies on standards of fault, or blameworthiness.
The most obvious standard is willful conduct. If the defendant (often called the tortfeasor—i.e., the one committing the tort) intentionally injures another, there is little argument about tort liability. Thus all crimes resulting in injury to a person or property (murder, assault, arson, etc.) are also torts, and the plaintiff may bring a separate lawsuit to recover damages for injuries to his person, family, or property.
Most tort suits do not rely on intentional fault. They are based, rather, on negligent conduct that in the circumstances is careless or poses unreasonable risks of causing damage. Most automobile accident and medical malpractice suits are examples of negligence suits.
The fault dimension is a continuum. At one end is the deliberate desire to do injury. The middle ground is occupied by careless conduct. At the other end is conduct that most would consider entirely blameless, in the moral sense. The defendant may have observed all possible precautions and yet still be held liable. This is called strict liability. An example is that incurred by the manufacturer of a defective product that is placed on the market despite all possible precautions, including quality-control inspection. In many states, if the product causes injury, the manufacturer will be held liable.
Dimensions of Tort: Nature of Injury
Tort liability varies by the type of injury caused. The most obvious type is physical harm to the person (assault, battery, infliction of emotional distress, negligent exposure to toxic pollutants, wrongful death) or property (trespass, nuisance, arson, interference with contract). Mental suffering can be redressed if it is a result of physical injury (e.g., shock and depression following an automobile accident). A few states now permit recovery for mental distress alone (a mother’s shock at seeing her son injured by a car while both were crossing the street). Other protected interests include a person’s reputation (injured by defamatory statements or writings), privacy (injured by those who divulge secrets of his personal life), and economic interests (misrepresentation to secure an economic advantage, certain forms of unfair competition).
Dimensions of Tort: Excuses
A third element in the law of torts is the excuse for committing an apparent wrong. The law does not condemn every act that ultimately results in injury.
One common rule of exculpation is assumption of risk. A baseball fan who sits along the third base line close to the infield assumes the risk that a line drive foul ball may fly toward him and strike him. He will not be permitted to complain in court that the batter should have been more careful or that management should have either warned him or put up a protective barrier.
Another excuse is negligence of the plaintiff. If two drivers are careless and hit each other on the highway, some states will refuse to permit either to recover from the other. Still another excuse is consent: two boxers in the ring consent to being struck with fists (but not to being bitten on the ear).
Since the purpose of tort law is to compensate the victim for harm actually done, damages are usually measured by the extent of the injury. Expressed in money terms, these include replacement of property destroyed, compensation for lost wages, reimbursement for medical expenses, and dollars that are supposed to approximate the pain that is suffered. Damages for these injuries are called compensatory damages.
In certain instances, the courts will permit an award of punitive damages. As the word punitiveimplies, the purpose is to punish the defendant’s actions. Because a punitive award (sometimes called exemplary damages) is at odds with the general purpose of tort law, it is allowable only in aggravated situations. The law in most states permits recovery of punitive damages only when the defendant has deliberately committed a wrong with malicious intent or has otherwise done something outrageous.
Punitive damages are rarely allowed in negligence cases for that reason. But if someone sets out intentionally and maliciously to hurt another person, punitive damages may well be appropriate. Punitive damages are intended not only to punish the wrongdoer, by exacting an additional and sometimes heavy payment (the exact amount is left to the discretion of jury and judge), but also to deter others from similar conduct. The punitive damage award has been subject to heavy criticism in recent years in cases in which it has been awarded against manufacturers. One fear is that huge damage awards on behalf of a multitude of victims could swiftly bankrupt the defendant. Unlike compensatory damages, punitive damages are taxable.
Whenever a company or individual acts unreasonably and causes injury, that person or company may be liable for a tort. In some cases it doesn’t matter how careful or reasonable the company or individual is—they may be liable for any injury resulting from their actions. Torts are an integral part of our civil law, and in this chapter, you’ll learn about what kinds of torts exist and how to defend yourself or your company from potential tort liability. Specifically, you should be able to answer the following questions:
- What are torts?
- What are intentional torts, and how does one defend against an accusation of one?
- What is negligence and how does it affect virtually all human activity?
- What is strict liability and how does it affect businesses engaged in making and selling products?
- What are the arguments for and against tort reform?
Figure 7.1 A Typical Construction Site
Look at the picture in Figure 7.1 “A Typical Construction Site”. You’ve probably seen a similar picture of a construction site near where you live, with multiple orange traffic cones (with reflective stripes so they can be seen at night) and a large sign warning vehicles not to attempt to drive on the road. Now imagine the picture without the traffic cones, warning signs, or caution tape. If you were driving, would you still attempt to drive on this road?
Most of us would probably answer no, since the road is obviously under construction and attempting to drive on it may result in severe damage to property (our vehicles) and personal injury. Similarly, pedestrians, skateboarders, and bicyclists will likely steer clear of this road even if it wasn’t clearly marked or roped off. So if the dangers associated with this construction are obvious, why would the construction workers go through the time and expense of setting up the traffic cones, sign, and tape?
The answer has to do with tort law. A tort can be broadly defined as a civil wrong, other than breach of contract. In other words, a tort is any legally recognizable injury arising from the conduct (or nonconduct, because in some cases failing to act may be a tort) of persons or corporations. The other area of civil law that corporations have to be concerned about is contract law. There are several key differences between torts and contracts.
First is the realm of possible plaintiffs. In contract law, only persons that you have a contract with, or you are a third-party-beneficiary to (such as when you are named the beneficiary to a life insurance policy and the company refuses to pay the claim), can possibly sue you for breach of contract. In tort law, just about anyone can sue you, as long as they can establish that you owe them some sort of legally recognized duty. The second key difference is damages, or remedies. In contract law, damages are usually not difficult to calculate, as contract law seeks to place the parties in the same position as if the bargain had been performed (known as compensatory damages). Compensatory damages also apply in tort law, but they are much more difficult to calculate. Since money cannot bring the dead back to life or regrow a limb, tort law seeks to find a suitable monetary equivalent to those losses, which as you can imagine is a very difficult thing to do. Additionally, tort law generally allows for the award of punitive damages, something never permitted in contract law.
There is also some intersection between tort law and criminal law. Often, the same conduct can be both a crime and a tort. If Claire punches Charlie in the gut, for example, without provocation and for no reason, then Claire has committed the tort of battery and the crime of battery. In the tort case, Charlie could sue Claire in civil court for money damages (typically for his pain, suffering, and medical bills). That case would be tried based on the civil burden of proof—preponderance of the evidence. That same action, however, could also lead Charlie to file a criminal complaint with the prosecutor’s office. Society is harmed when citizens punch each other in the gut without provocation or justification, so the prosecutor may file a criminal case against Claire, where the people of the state would sue her for the crime of battery. If convicted beyond a reasonable doubt, Claire may have to pay a fine to the people (the government) and may lose her liberty. Charlie gets nothing specifically from Claire in the criminal case other than the general satisfaction of knowing that his attacker has been convicted of a crime.
You might recall from Chapter 3 “Litigation” that the standard of proving a criminal case (beyond a reasonable doubt) is far higher than the standard for proving a civil case (a preponderance of evidence). Therefore, if someone is convicted of a crime, he or she is also automatically liable in civil tort law under the negligence per se doctrine. For that reason, criminal defendants who wish to avoid a criminal trial are permitted to plead “no contest” to the criminal charges, which permits the judge to sentence them as if they were guilty but preserves the right of the defendant to defend a civil tort suit.
Perhaps more than any other area of law, tort law is a reflection of American societal values. Contracts are enforced because they protect our expectation that our promises are enforced. Criminal law is the result of elected legislatures prohibiting behavior that the community finds offensive or immoral. Tort law, on the other hand, is generally not the result of legislative debate or committee reports. Each tort case arises out of different factual situations, and a jury of peers is asked to decide whether or not the tortfeasor (the person committing the tort) has violated a certain societal norm. Additionally, we expect that when an employee is working for the employer’s benefit and commits a tort, the employer should be liable. Under the respondeat superior doctrine, employers are indeed liable, unless they can demonstrate the employee was on a frolic and detour at the time he or she committed the tort.
The norms that society protects make up the basis for tort law. For example, we have an expectation that we have the right to move freely without interference unless detained pursuant to law. If someone interferes with that right, he or she commits the tort of false imprisonment. We have an expectation that if someone spills a jug of milk in a grocery store, the store owners will promptly warn other customers of a slippery floor and clean up the spill. Failure to do so might constitute the tort of negligence. Likewise, we expect that the products we purchase for everyday use won’t suddenly and without explanation injure us, and if that happens then a tort has taken place.
It has been said many times that tort law is a unique feature of American law. In Asian countries that follow a Buddhist tradition, for example, many people have a belief that change is a constant part of life and to resist that change is to cause human suffering. Rather than seeking to blame someone else for change (such as an injury, death, or damage to personal property), a Buddhist may see it as part of that person’s or thing’s “nature” to change. In countries with an Islamic tradition, virtually all events are seen as the will of God, so an accident or tragedy that leads to injury or death is accepted as part of one’s submission to God. In the United States, however, the tradition is one of questioning and inquiry when accidents happen. Indeed, it can be said with some truth that many Americans believe there is no such thing as an accident—if someone is injured or killed unexpectedly, we almost immediately seek to explain what happened (and then often place blame).
Torts can be broadly categorized into three categories, depending on the level of intent demonstrated by the tortfeasor. If the tortfeasor acted with intent to cause the damage or harm that results from his or her action, then an intentional tort has occurred. If the tortfeasor didn’t act intentionally but nonetheless failed to act in a way a reasonable person would have acted, then negligence has taken place. Finally, if the tortfeasor is engaged in certain activities and someone is injured or killed, then under strict liability the tortfeasor is held liable no matter how careful or careless he or she may have been. In this chapter, we’ll explore these three areas of torts carefully so that by the end of the chapter, you’ll understand the responsibilities tort law imposes on both persons and corporations. The chapter concludes with a brief discussion of other issues that affect torts, including tort reform.
A tort is a civil wrong (other than breach of contract) arising out of conduct or nonconduct that violates societal norms as determined by the judicial system. Unlike contracts and crimes, torts do not require legislative action. Torts protect certain expectations we cherish in a free society, such as the right to travel freely and to enjoy our property. There are three primary areas of tort law, classified depending on the level of intent demonstrated by the tortfeasor.
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