What is a Tort? Tort Law, Tort Claims, and Tort Lawyers

A variety of cases fall under the "tort" umbrella, and not all tort lawyers specialize in personal injury.

By , J.D. · University of San Francisco School of Law

In the legal context, "tort" is just an older (and stranger) word for "injury." In this article we'll explain:

  • what a "tort" is
  • the different types of tort claims
  • the kinds of harm that can be compensated in a tort case
  • where to find laws that apply to tort cases, and
  • how to find the right lawyer to handle your tort case.

What Is a Tort?

A tort is a harmful act that is inflicted on one person by another. A tort can also be committed by a business, a corporation, or another legal entity.

While the harmful act can be either accidental or intentional, by definition a tort is a civil wrong, meaning that a tort can form the basis of a civil lawsuit. Even when the same conduct might amount to a crime, tort law (which is related to personal injury law) is only concerned with the civil (non-criminal) side of things.

What Is a Tort Claim?

The basic tenets of tort law—that a wrongdoer should be held liable for all losses stemming from a civil wrong—form the basis for everything from an injury-related insurance claim to a civil court jury trial after an accident or other incident that leads to harm.

Since a tort is a "civil" wrong (as opposed to a wrong that rises to the level of a crime) the remedy for someone who has been harmed typically comes in the form of financial compensation for losses caused by the tort (called "damages" in the language of the law). More on damages a bit later.

Different Types of Tort Cases

Most tort cases arise when one person is somehow careless, and that carelessness injures or otherwise harms someone else. The legal term for this kind of carelessness is negligence. And negligence is the legal theory that forms the basis for most kinds of tort cases involving accidental injury, such as those stemming from:

Tort cases can also result from:

  • defective or dangerous products, drugs, and medical devices
  • defamation (libel or slander)
  • harm to business or finances (including claims like "tortious interference" with a contract or with someone's business dealings)
  • "intentional torts," which are injuries that arise from purposeful conduct.

Note that an act that amounts to an intentional tort can also be considered a crime under a state's criminal code, meaning that a single act can give rise to a civil lawsuit and a criminal prosecution. Examples of these kinds of acts are assault and battery.

What Damages Might Be Included In a Tort Claim?

The different kinds of damages that might be available in a tort claim depend on:

  • the nature of the conduct that led to the harm, and
  • the nature of the harm itself.

So, a tort like a slip and fall might lead to damages like payment of medical bills incurred to treat the resulting injuries, and compensation for mental and physical pain and suffering resulting from the accident and the injuries. But damages in a "tortious interference with business interests" claim might be limited to lost income, missed business opportunities, and other provable financial harm.

As mentioned above, these damages might come as a result of an injury-related insurance claim, or through a successful lawsuit. But keep in mind that trials are extremely rare in tort cases, and chances are that a lawsuit will reach an out of court settlement at some point. No matter what it's called, or when it comes, money paid to a tort claimant is typically considered compensation for damages.

Where Can Tort Laws Be Found?

Tort cases are usually governed more by court decisions than by statutes (laws). State laws do come into play in tort cases—for example, every state has a statute of limitations that sets a limit on the amount of time you have to file a lawsuit after you've suffered an injury. But most tort cases are governed by a concept known as "common law," which basically means that the rules for these cases have evolved (and are still evolving) according to what courts have held in the distant (and not-so-distant) past.

If you have a tort case, chances are that the "law" that applies most closely to your case will be a multi-faceted patchwork of past rulings that have been handed down by courts in your state, especially rulings from the state's highest appeals court.

What Is a Tort Lawyer?

A tort lawyer is usually someone whose legal practice is focused on representing clients who have suffered injury, financial loss, or other harm as a result of some kind of wrongful action.

Personal injury lawyers are tort lawyers, usually representing people who have been injured in accidents. But other kinds of tort lawyers who might specialize in other areas, including medical malpractice, defamation, or business-related torts.

How to Begin Your Search For a Tort Lawyer

When you're looking for a legal professional's help with a tort case, you want someone who has experience with cases like yours, whether that's a car accident claim or one alleging financial harm from unfair business practices. But finding the right fit usually starts with asking friends and family for a recommendation, talking to lawyers you already have a relationship with, or doing a bit of online research. Get tips on finding the right personal injury lawyer.

What Kind of Tort Lawyer Do You Need?

Just as there are many different kinds of torts, there are many different kinds of tort lawyers. While many attorneys specialize in "personal injury," you'll also find that many lawyers have (or at least claim to have) expertise in a specific kind of personal injury case.

That's an important factor when you're choosing a lawyer, because a medical malpractice case is very different from a defective product case, for example. Countless kinds of cases fall under the larger "personal injury" umbrella, but these varieties of cases can be very different in terms of the key issues that often crop up.

How Can The Right Tort Lawyer Help Me With My Case?

When an attorney has experience handling a specific kind of personal injury case, it means that they will anticipate and navigate crucial legal and procedural challenges, and will often do so in a way that's more efficient and more effective than someone who is in unfamiliar territory might. Learn more about how a personal injury lawyer can help you, and get tips on working with your lawyer to get the best result for your case.

If you're ready to discuss your situation (and your options) with a legal professional, you can use the features right on this page to connect with a tort or personal injury lawyer in your area.

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