Tort in the United States


A private or civil injury to a person or property. An injured party may bring suit, but tort actions do not represent a major portion of civil case filings. Rather, such claims are typically resolved prior to the filing of a lawsuit. The potential for litigation, however, is high since there are so many personal injury situations. A tort action must include the legal obligation of a defendant to a plaintiff, violation of that obligation, and a causal relationship between the defendant’s conduct and the injury suffered by the plaintiff.

Tort Definition

(Fr. tort; from Lat. torquere, to twist, tortus, twisted, wrested aside). This definition of Tort is based on the Cyclopedic Law Dictionary (this definition may need to be proofread): A private or civil wrong or injury; a wrong independent of contract. 1 Hilliard, Torts, 1. The commission or omission of an act by one without right, whereby another receives some injury, directly or indirectly, in person, property, or reputation. The word ‘tort’ means nearly the same thing as the expression ‘civil wrong.’ It denotes an injury inflicted otherwise than by mere breach of contract; or, to be more nicely accurate, a tort is a disturbance of another in rights which the law has created, either in the absence of contract, or in consequence of a relation which a contract had established between the parties.

  • Distinguished from breach of contract. As recognized by the law for the enforcement of rights and redress of injuries, torts may be distinguished from breach of contracts by these qualities: That parties jointly committing torts are severally liable without right to contribution from each other; that the death of either party destroys the right of action; that persons under personal disabilities to contract are liable for their torts; that attachment, arrest, and imprisonment are allowed on claims arising under contracts. 1 Hilliard, Torts, 3. A tort, however, may grow out of, or make part of, or be coincident with, a contract; as in the familiar case of a fraudulent sale or fraudulent recommendation of a third person. Indeed, the wrong of fraud almost necessarily implies an accompanying contract. In these cases, the law often allows the party injured an election of remedies; that is, he may proceed against the other party either as a debtor or contractor, or as a wrongdoer.
  • Distinguished from crime. The distinction of public wrongs from private crimes, and misdemeanors from civil injuries, seems principally to consist in this, that private wrongs or civil injuries are an infringement or privation of the civil rights which belong to individuals merely as individuals. Public wrongs or crimes and misdemeanors are a breach and violation of the public rights and duties due to the whole community in its social aggregate capacity.

Read more about Tort in the legal Dictionaries here.

Analysis and Relevance

A tort is any civil wrong except breach of contract. A lawsuit alleging the negligence of an automobile driver is a tort action, for example. An assault is a tort. So is a trespass. A current tort issue of growing importance involves the liability of governmental units for injury stemming from actions of government employees. As a general rule, governments are not responsible for injuries committed by employees performing purely “governmental functions.” The Supreme Court, however, ruled in Maine v. Thiboutot (448 U.S. 1: 1980) that suits may be brought for alleged denial of rights under any federal statute under provision of Section 1983 of Title 42 of the United States Code. The decision in Thiboutot to allow Section 1983 suits alleging violation of any federal law may prove to have a substantial impact on federal-state relationships. Given the extent to which federal statutes, especially those involving entitlement programs, intertwine with state governmental activities, state officials now become subject to direct legal action as a result of Thiboutot. Thus state governments and their officials have become subject to greater tort liability through lawsuits commenced in the federal courts.

Tort in Foreign Legal Encyclopedias

Link Description
Tort Tort in the World Legal Encyclopedia.
Tort Tort in the European Legal Encyclopedia.
Tort Tort in the Asian Legal Encyclopedia.
Tort Tort in the UK Legal Encyclopedia.
Tort Tort in the Australian Legal Encyclopedia.

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Practical Information

Note: Some of this information was last updated in 1982

A civil wrong inflicted otherwise than by a breach (in U.S. law) of Contract. Elements of tort are (1) a wrongful act or omission to obey the law, and (2) an injury to some person. Tort gives the injured party the right to sue for any resulting damage. Persons (including minors) and corporations are liable for torts. Some of the more common torts are negligence (in U.S. law), assault and battery (in U.S. law), conversion (in U.S. law), false imprisonment (in U.S. law), and libel and slander (in U.S. law). Example of tort: A visitor to a department store (even one having no expressed intention to make a purchase but intending merely to examine the merchandise) can recover damages from the proprietor for injuries caused by the negligent maintenance of the store premises. See also civil law (in U.S. law); civil court (in U.S. law).

(Revised by Ann De Vries)

What is Tort?

For a meaning of it, read Tort in the Legal Dictionary here. Browse and search more U.S. and international free legal definitions and legal terms related to Tort.

Tort in Environmental Law

A civil, as opposed to a criminal, wrong that results in an injury to another party. Torts involve any harm to a protected interest, which is a right that society recognizes as important to individuals. Protected interests include the rights to personal integrity and noninterference with personal or real property, privacy, reputation, and earning capacity. Examples of torts include assault, battery, false imprisonment, trespass, nuisance, negligence, conversion, invasion of privacy, slander, libel, and interference with business.

Tort law, which originated in early English cases, was originally a way to keep the peace in communities. If an injury occurred, the injured party could sue and leave it up to the jury to decide whether the action of the defendant invaded a protected interest. In environmental law, many of the old tort theories are being used as a basis of liability for property damage and personal injuries from contamination. Anew branch of tort law, called toxic torts, includes issues involving pollution when some toxic or hazardous substance [see hazardous substances] may have caused the illness or contamination. See also strict liability.
Based on “Environment and the Law. A Dictionary”.

Tort in relation to Public Officers

Find out in this American legal Encyclopedia the information on Tort (wrongful discharge in violation of public policy) in relation to Public Officers (and in the context of local government law).

Meaning of Tort

In plain or simple terms, Tort means: Something you can sue over.

Basic Meaning of Tort

Tort means: a private or civil wrong, other than breach of contract, for which there may be action for damages.

Tort (Priority)

This section introduces, discusses and describes the basics of tort. Then, cross references and a brief overview about Priority is provided. Finally, the subject of Maritime Liens in relation with tort is examined. Note that a list of cross references, bibliography and other resources appears at the end of this entry.

Tort (Sources)

This section introduces, discusses and describes the basics of tort. Then, cross references and a brief overview about Sources is provided. Finally, the subject of Maritime Liens in relation with tort is examined. Note that a list of cross references, bibliography and other resources appears at the end of this entry.


Notes and References

  1. Definition of Tort from the American Law Dictionary, 1991, California
  2. Information about Tort in the Encarta Online Encyclopedia

See Also

Litigation (Judicial Function)
Settlement (Judicial Function).
Prima facie tort

Kinds of Torts: Other Torts

Introduction to Tort

Some torts are not classified as intentional or negligent. These include defamation and product liability.” (1)

Guide to Tort

Tort meaning

A tort is a violation of a legal duty resulting in damages to the plaintiff. Delict is a synonymous though rarely used in English – despite the fact that it is the term for tort both in French (délit) and in German (Delikt).

Coleman v. California Yearly Meeting of Friends Church, 27 Cal.App.2d 579, 8I P.2d 469, 470.
James v. Public Finance Corp., 47 C.A.3d 995, 121  Cal.Rptr. 670, 675.
Joseph v. Hustad Corp., 454 P.2d 916, 918.

Further Reading (Articles)

Tort Experiments in the Laboratories of Democracy, William and Mary Law Review; April 1, 2009; Klass, Alexandra B.

Torts as Wrongs, Texas Law Review; April 1, 2010; Goldberg, John C. P. Zipursky, Benjamin C.

Tort Reform in America: Abrogating the Collateral Source Rule across the States, Defense Counsel Journal; October 1, 2008; Wershbale, Jamie L.

Viva Torts!, The Journal of High Technology Law; January 1, 2005; Linden, Allen M.

Mass Torts in a World of Settlement.(Book review), Michigan Law Review; April 1, 2008; Sebok, Anthony J.

Torts and Estates: Remedying Wrongful Interference with Inheritance, Stanford Law Review; February 1, 2013; Goldberg, John C. P. Sitkoff, Robert H.

Torts, Canadian Encyclopedia; January 1, 2002; LEWIS N. KLAR


Torts: Cases and Commentary, 5th ed.(Book Review), Melbourne University Law Review; December 1, 2003; Graycar, Reg

Missouri tort ranking deserves an asterisk, Missouri Lawyers Media; June 6, 2010; Scott Lauck

TORT LAW FOR FEDERALISTS (AND THE REST OF US): PRIVATE LAW IN DISGUISE, Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy; October 1, 2004; Goldberg, John C P

Federal tort cases holding steady, report says. Trial; April 1, 1998; McMurry, Kelly

Mass Tort Class Actions in the New Millennium, The Review of Litigation; July 1, 1998; Adrogue, Sofia

Reevaluating Proposals for Tort Claims Markets in a World of Mass Tort Litigation, The Review of Litigation; April 1, 2013; Guerrero, Ryan

U.S. tort costs reach a record $260 billion, Northeast Pennsylvania Business Journal; April 1, 2006; Anonymous

Tort ‘reformers’ have frivolous case, economists say. Trial; July 1, 2005; Sileo, Carmel

Tort law covers a wide range of rights, wrongs, Chicago Sun-Times; March 6, 1988; Leonard Groupe

Judicial Tort Reform in Texas, The Review of Litigation; January 1, 2007; Anderson, David A.

Stevens, Robert. Torts and Rights.(Book review), The Review of Metaphysics; June 1, 2009; Dougherty, Jude P.

Tort costs jump.(National Report), Claims; November 1, 2003

Tort Definition in the context of the Federal Court System

A civil wrong or breach of a duty to another person. The “victim” of a tort may be entitled to sue for the harm suffered. Victims of crimes may also sue in tort for the wrongs done to them. Most tort cases are handled in state court, except when the tort occurs on federal property (e.g., a military base), when the government is the defendant, or when a dispute between parties from different states falls under the federal court’s diversity jurisdiction.

Tort in the International Business Landscape

Definition of Tort in the context of U.S. international business and public trade policy: An intentional or negligent wrong against an individual.


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