Personal Injury Claims for Intentional Torts

When someone acts intentionally (as opposed to negligently) and that action causes injury, a personal injury claim can be made under the theory of intentional torts.

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A tort occurs when one person's conduct causes harm to another person. As the name implies, an intentional tort occurs when someone acts intentionally (as opposed to negligently) and that action causes harm.

Intentional torts are generally limited to the following acts:

  • assault
  • battery - See Personal Injury Claims for Assault and Battery
  • false imprisonment
  • conversion
  • intentional infliction of emotional distress
  • fraud
  • trespass (to land and property)
  • invasion of privacy, and
  • defamation (slander and libel).

Some courts will also allow an intentional tort case where the defendant intended to commit the act that harmed the plaintiff, but none of the pre-existing categories fit the facts.

Because of the greater level of wrongdoing involved, intentional torts are generally punished more severely than other civil wrongs, and the same acts are frequently grounds for a criminal prosecution. For someone who successfully sues and wins an intentional tort case, broad damage awards, including punitive damages, are available.

The Nature of Intent

The plaintiff in an intentional tort case must prove that the defendant intended to commit the act that led to the plaintiff’s harm. Notice that the plaintiff does not need to prove that the defendant specifically intended to harm the plaintiff: what he or she must prove is that the harm was certain or substantially certain to result from an act that the defendant intentionally committed. If the harmful results were certain or substantially certain to occur, the defendant will be punished as if he or she intended to cause the harm. If the harmful results were less than substantially certain, the defendant will only be punished for recklessness or negligence.

Examples of Intentional and Reckless Torts

Intentional Tort: A throws a bomb into B's office for the purpose of killing B. A knows that C, B's stenographer, is in the office. A has no desire to injure C, but knows that his act is substantially certain to do so. C is injured by the explosion. A is subject to liability to C for an intentional tort.

Recklessness Tort: On a curve in a narrow highway A, without any desire to injure B, or belief that he is substantially certain to do so, recklessly drives his automobile in an attempt to pass B's car. As a result of this recklessness, A crashes into B's car, injuring B. A is subject to liability to B for his reckless conduct, but is not liable to B for any intentional tort.

Transferred Intent

The first example above also illustrates the issue of transferred intent. If the defendant intended to cause harm to one person, but instead ends up harming a second person, the defendant’s intent is said to be “transferred” and he or she will be liable for an intentional tort to the second person.

Vicarious Liability and Intentional Torts

“Vicarious liability” describes the situation where an employer, parent or other authority becomes liable for the acts of the employee, child or other subordinate.

Typically, vicarious liability can only arise if the subordinate committed the tort while performing actions for their employer or other authority. For example, a hospital might be held liable for the negligence of a nurse. Vicarious liability for intentional torts is limited to those situations where the employment involves the use of force, such as a police department or security services. In the case of parents’ vicarious liability for the acts of children, the law varies from state to state and is in the process of changing, but typically a parent might be liable for negligence if they should have prevented a child’s intentionally harmful act.

Defenses in Intentional Tort Cases

Many of the defenses available to torts in general are available to the intentional tort defendant. Perhaps the most common are consent and defense of self, property or others.

The central issue to a consent defense is whether the plaintiff knowingly consented to the defendant’s harmful act or whether he or she was misled about what the defendant intended to do. A plaintiff’s consent also won’t work as a defense if the plaintiff only consented because he or she was threatened in some way.

If a defendant accused of the intentional tort was acting in defense of his or herself, his or her property, or in the defense of another person, the central question will be whether the defendant acted in a way that was proportionate to the harm threatened.

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