What is a Tort?

“Tort” is a word from Latin, meaning an injustice. A tort is a legal offense that one person (or company) commits against another.

A tort is also described as a “breach” of a “duty” owed to another person.

One of the most common torts is negligence. Negligence is a legal term for carelessness. In general, people have a duty of care (a legal requirement to be careful) if their behavior will impact other people.

When a person or company does not take enough care, and someone else is injured as a result, the careless person or company may be guilty of negligence.

Under Texas state law, the negligent person or company must pay for injuries and property damage caused by that negligence.

Duty of Care – Negligence and Dog Bites

For example, dog owners have a duty of care to make sure their dogs do not bite or attack people.

There are steps a dog owner must take to meet this duty of care. An obvious one is keep the dog on a leash in public so it doesn’t run up to people.

Dog owners who let their dogs run around in public (except in designated dog park areas) might not be meeting the duty of care. If an unleashed dog attacks someone, the owner is probably responsible for injuries that the dog causes.

Duty To Warn

Some dangers cannot always be avoided. When Texas city employees work on the sewer, they sometimes need to leave a manhole uncovered.

Texas law recognizes this reality. But when something involves risk that cannot be avoided, the law requires that people be warned of the risk. That way they are choosing to expose themselves to risk knowingly.

This is known under tort law as the duty to warn. A person or company whose behavior inherently imposes risk of injury on other people must warn them of the danger.

For example, pharmaceutical manufacturers have a duty to make sure the medicines they sell are not dangerous. They also have a duty to warn consumers if there are any negative side effects.

If the pharmaceutical manufacturer violates those duties (by selling a dangerous drug, or by not warning consumers with a label), the manufacturer has committed a tort. Those harmed by the tort can often recover money from the company for injuries that the medicine caused.

The Difference Between a Tort and a Crime

A tort is a legal violation of someone’s rights under civil law. A crime is a legal violation of someone’s rights under criminal law.

Torts

  • Torts are addressed by the victim (known as the plaintiff).
  • The injured plaintiff brings a lawsuit against the person or company that caused the harm (known as the defendant).
  • The defendant who committed a tort may have to pay money or take steps to repair or compensate the plaintiff’s damages.
  • A tort must be proven in court by a “preponderance of the evidence.” This means the plaintiff must show it is more likely than not that the defendant committed the tort. Some legal experts have referred to this as proving it is at least 51% likely.

Crimes

  • Crimes are addressed by the government.
  • Law enforcement officials prosecute the person who committed the crime (called the “defendant.”)
  • The defendant who committed a crime may be punished with prison, or fines paid to the government.
  • A crime must be proven by the prosecutor in court “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This is a much higher standard than for a tort in civil law. The judge or jury must feel that it is almost certain the defendant committed the crime. Some legal experts refer to this as being 98-99% likely.

The Difference Between a Tort and Contract Breach

Both a tort and breach of contract violate a person’s rights, and both are addressed in civil court (instead of criminal court). However there are some important differences.

Breach of Contract

  • A breach of contract is a broken promise made from one party to another.
  • The duty is usually created by the contract itself – an agreement between the parties.
  • Compensation for a breach of contract is limited to the actual losses experienced by the plaintiff. You usually cannot recover more money than you lost because the other party broke the promise in the contract.

Tort

  • A tort is a violation of legal rights, or a breach of a duty.
  • With a tort, the duty is usually created by law (a statute) or because of a relationship between the parties (e.g., a doctor owes patients a duty of care).
  • Tort recovery can include punitive damages (known in Texas as exemplary damages). This money can exceed the actual injuries to the plaintiff. Exemplary or punitive damages are designed to punish the defendant. The punishment deters the defendant and others from committing the same tort in the future.

If you have been injured because of someone else’s behavior, you may be the victim of a tort. Contact Justinian & Associates for a free consultation with an experienced attorney (not a “screener” or paralegal.)