Legal-Ease: What is a tort?

In law school, my classmates and I initially thought that a tort was a type of pastry or donut, because we confused “tort” with “tart”.

Actually, a tort is generally defined as any wrongful act other than a breach of contract. Torts are civil matters asserted by private people against other private people.

Some wrongful acts can be both torts and crimes. For example, an assault (attempting a physical attack on someone else) can be both a crime and a tort.

A more technical definition of a tort is a circumstance where a person has a duty to someone else, that person breaches that duty to someone else and that person’s breach of the duty causes damage to the someone else who experienced the breach.

For instance, the law recognizes that each person has a duty to not take anyone else’s possessions without the owner’s permission.

When someone takes ownership or possession of property from the property’s owner without permission, that action is a breach of the duty to not take others’ property without permission.

When the property’s owner loses money by having to purchase a replacement for the property wrongfully taken, the property owner experiences “injury” or “damages” caused by the breach of the duty.

There are two aspects of tort law about which attorneys often argue.

First, the proving causation can be tricky. Let’s say that I steal my neighbor’s computer tablet. Before work the next morning, my neighbor invests 20 minutes looking around my neighbor’s house for the missing computer tablet. Then, during my neighbor’s tardy drive to work, my neighbor gets hit by a drunk driver.

Had I not stolen my neighbor’s computer tablet, my neighbor would not have been at the intersection at the same time as the drunk driver and therefore would not have been hit by the drunk driver.

In this circumstance, my neighbor could argue that I at least indirectly “caused” the circumstance that injured and harmed my neighbor. However, the law does not go so far in allowing causation to include such indirect outcomes. Instead, the law requires that my tortious wrongdoing must be sufficiently related to the damage/injuries sustained by my neighbor. Thus, cause for purposes of tort law is narrowly defined as “proximate cause,” which is cause that is direct and necessary for the damage to occur.

Second and similarly, in order for a tort to apply to a situation, the injury or damage sustained must be reasonably foreseeable.

As an example, if a thief steals a lady’s purse while walking down the street, the thief has clearly breached the duty to respect the lady’s property.

The lady may experience extreme emotional distress from the purse theft that could cause the lady to become a mass murderer on the afternoon of the purse theft. The purse theft was a cause for the murders, but financial responsibility for the murders might be hard to pin on the purse thief, because murders are not a reasonably foreseeable outcome following the theft of a purse.

Lee R. Schroeder is an Ohio licensed attorney at Schroeder Law LLC in Putnam County. He limits his practice to business, real estate, estate planning and agriculture issues in northwest Ohio. He can be reached at [email protected] or at 419-659-2058. This article is not intended to serve as legal advice, and specific advice should be sought from the licensed attorney of your choice based upon the specific facts and circumstances that you face.