Intentional Torts vs. Negligence in Personal Injury Cases

Different rules exist for injuries (called torts) committed on purpose or by accident.

How an injury-related insurance claim or lawsuit proceeds will depend in part upon what kind of tort is being alleged. Personal injury cases come in all shapes and sizes, but almost all claims are based on one of two underlying arguments:

  • the plaintiff (the injured person) suffered harm because of carelessness on the part of the defendant, or
  • the plaintiff’s injuries were caused by a purposeful act committed by the defendant.

The first scenario described above encompasses negligent torts, while the second captures intentional torts. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at how negligent torts and intentional torts are defined, offer some examples of each, and more. (Note: In legalese, “tort” is just another word for a legal wrong committed by one person against another.)

Negligent Torts

Almost all accident cases -- auto accidents and slip and fall cases, for example -- fall under the umbrella of negligent torts.   There are four basic components to a negligence case:

Duty.  In general, we owe all people the duty to exercise the care that a reasonably prudent person would exercise under the circumstances to prevent foreseeable harms to others. Some examples of these duties are: the duty not to create conditions that are dangerous to the public; and the duty to contain wild animals we may own. In the context of a car accident case, all drivers have a legal duty to act with reasonable care in the operation of their vehicles.

Breach of Duty  and  Causation.  Conduct that is unreasonable or irresponsible under the circumstances amounts to a breach of the legal duty of care discussed above. So, sticking with the car accident example, a driver who runs a red light and hits another car has failed to drive in a reasonably responsible manner, and has breached his or her legal duty of care. As for causation, it’s pretty clear in most cases. Basically, the defendant’s conduct must have led directly to the harm suffered by the plaintiff.

Damages.  In any negligent tort case, the plaintiff must actually have suffered some harm as a result of the accident or incident. Some examples of compensable damages include:

  • medical expenses
  • lost wages
  • pain and suffering
  • property damage

For more on negligence, see this overview article on the subject.

Intentional Torts

Intentional torts, as the name suggests, are legal wrongs that are committed on purpose (as opposed to by accident or through carelessness). An intentional tort occurs when the defendant acts with the intent to cause actual harm or offense to another person (or at least the threat of harm or offense). . Intentional torts include:

  • Battery – applies to almost any form of harmful or offensive contact, even when no actual injury occurs.
  • Assault – definition varies by state, but usually includes any intentional act that places the victim in reasonable fear of imminent harm (i.e. pointing a loaded gun at someone).  
  • False Imprisonment – occurs when one person intentionally restrains the movement of another person (actually or constructively) without the legal right to do so. This can occur when a security guard wrongfully detains a shoplifting suspect.
  • Trespassing – unlawful entry onto someone else’s property.

Defenses to Intentional Torts.  The most common defenses to intentional tort allegations are:

  • the defendant was acting in self-defense or in defense of a third person, and
  • the defendant acted with the plaintiff’s consent (i.e. the defendant touched the plaintiff with the plaintiff’s permission, or entered the plaintiff’s property with consent).

Intentional Torts: Is Criminal Liability Possible?    Many intentional torts can also result in criminal charges. For example, if an assault and/or battery incident results in injuries to the plaintiff, then the victim might file a personal injury lawsuit against the perpetrator seeking money damages, and the local prosecutor might file criminal charges against the attacker as well -- under state criminal statutes that define “assault and battery” as a misdemeanor crime. Similarly, in some states false imprisonment is considered both a crime and a civil wrong, or the same incident might give rise to a personal injury lawsuit for false imprisonment, and a criminal charge of kidnapping.

For more information on personal injury laws governing intentional torts, see Alllaw's section on Intentional Injury Claims.

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