Intentional torts

Intentional torts in United States

Intentional torts


For every intentional tort there is a corresponding crime. Thus the tort of assault / the crime of assault, the tort of battery / the crime of battery etc. The intentional torts are those torts committed not through negligence or under a theory of strict liability but deliberately.

Criminal Law

There are many kinds of intentional torts. Some of them involve harm to the physical person or to his or her property, reputation or feelings, or economic interests. In each case of intentional tort, the plaintiff must show that the defendant intended harm, but the intent to harm does not need to be directed at a particular person and need not be malicious, as long as the resulting harm is a direct consequence of the defendant’s actions.

The analysis of most intentional torts is straightforward and parallels the substantive crimes already discussed in the entry about “Criminal Law” in this American legal Encyclopedia. When physical injury or damage to property is caused, there is rarely debate over liability if the plaintiff deliberately undertook to produce the harm. Certain other intentional torts are worth noting for their relevance to business. (1)

Assault and Battery

One of the most obvious intentional torts is assault and battery. Both criminal law and tort law serve to restrain individuals from using physical force on others. Assault is:

  • the threat of immediate harm or offense of contact or
  • any act that would arouse reasonable apprehension of imminent harm.

Battery is unauthorized and harmful or offensive physical contact with another person that causes injury.

Often an assault results in battery, but not always. In Western Union Telegraph Co. v. Hill, for example, the defendant did not touch the plaintiff’s wife, but the case presented an issue of possible assault even without an actual battery; the defendant employee attempted to kiss a customer across the countertop, couldn’t quite reach her, but nonetheless created actionable fear (or, as the court put it, “apprehension”) on the part of the plaintiff’s wife.

It is also possible to have a battery without an assault. For example, if someone hits you on the back of the head with an iron skillet and you didn’t see it coming, there is a battery but no assault. Likewise, if Andrea passes out from drinking too much at the fraternity party and a stranger (Andre) kisses her on the lips while she is passed out, she would not be aware of any threat of offensive contact and would have no apprehension of any harm. Thus there has been no tort of assault, but she could allege the tort of battery. (The question of what damages, if any, would be an interesting argument.)

Under the doctrine of transferred intent, if Draco aims his wand at Harry but Harry ducks just in time and the impact is felt by Hermione instead, English law (and American law) would transfer Draco’s intent from the target to the actual victim of the act. Thus Hermione could sue Draco for battery for any damages she had suffered. (2)

False Imprisonment

The tort of false imprisonment originally implied a locking up, as in a prison, but today it can occur if a person is restrained in a room or a car or even if his or her movements are restricted while walking down the street. People have a right to be free to go as they please, and anyone who without cause deprives another of personal freedom has committed a tort. Damages are allowed for time lost, discomfort and resulting ill health, mental suffering, humiliation, loss of reputation or business, and expenses such as attorneys’ fees incurred as a result of the restraint (such as a false arrest). But as the case of Lester v. Albers Super Markets, Inc. (Section 7.5 “Cases”) shows, the defendant must be shown to have restrained the plaintiff in order for damages to be allowed. (3)

Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress

For information about Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress, click here.

Trespass and Nuisance

For information on Trespass and Nuisance, click here.

Intentional Interference with Contractual Relations

Tortious interference with a contract can be established by proving four elements:

  • There was a contract between the plaintiff and a third party.
  • The defendant knew of the contract.
  • The defendant improperly induced the third party to breach the contract or made performance of the contract impossible.
  • There was injury to the plaintiff.

In a famous case of contract interference, Texaco was sued by Pennzoil for interfering with an agreement that Pennzoil had with Getty Oil. After complicated negotiations between Pennzoil and Getty, a takeover share price was struck, a memorandum of understanding was signed, and a press release announced the agreement in principle between Pennzoil and Getty. Texaco’s lawyers, however, believed that Getty oil was “still in play,” and before the lawyers for Pennzoil and Getty could complete the paperwork for their agreement, Texaco announced it was offering Getty shareholders an additional $12.50 per share over what Pennzoil had offered.

Texaco later increased its offer to $228 per share, and the Getty board of directors soon began dealing with Texaco instead of Pennzoil. Pennzoil decided to sue in Texas state court for tortious interference with a contract. After a long trial, the jury returned an enormous verdict against Texaco: $7.53 billion in actual damages and $3 billion in punitive damages. The verdict was so large that it would have bankrupted Texaco. Appeals from the verdict centered on an obscure rule of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), Rule 10(b)-13, and Texaco’s argument was based on that rule and the fact that the contract had not been completed. If there was no contract, Texaco could not have legally interfered with one. After the SEC filed a brief that supported Texaco’s interpretation of the law, Texaco agreed to pay $3 billion to Pennzoil to dismiss its claim of tortious interference with a contract. (4)

Malicious Prosecution

Malicious prosecution is the tort of causing someone to be prosecuted for a criminal act, knowing that there was no probable cause to believe that the plaintiff committed the crime. See more details about mailicious prosecution here.


For more information about defamation and tort law, click here.

Absolute Privilege

Statements made during the course of judicial proceedings are absolutely privileged, meaning that they cannot serve as the basis for a defamation suit. Accurate accounts of judicial or other proceedings are absolutely privileged; a newspaper, for example, may pass on the slanderous comments of a judge in court. “Judicial” is broadly construed to include most proceedings of administrative bodies of the government. The Constitution exempts members of Congress from suits for libel or slander for any statements made in connection with legislative business. The courts have constructed a similar privilege for many executive branch officials.

Qualified Privilege

Absolute privileges pertain to those in the public sector. A narrower privilege exists for private citizens. In general, a statement that would otherwise be actionable is held to be justified if made in a reasonable manner and for a reasonable purpose. Thus you may warn a friend to beware of dealing with a third person, and if you had reason to believe that what you said was true, you are privileged to issue the warning, even though false. Likewise, an employee may warn an employer about the conduct or character of a fellow or prospective employee, and a parent may complain to a school board about the competence or conduct of a child’s teacher. There is a line to be drawn, however, and a defendant with nothing but an idle interest in the matter (an “officious intermeddler”) must take the risk that his information is wrong.

In 1964, the Supreme Court handed down its historic decision in New York Times v. Sullivan, holding that under the First Amendment a libel judgment brought by a public official against a newspaper cannot stand unless the plaintiff has shown “actual malice,” which in turn was defined as “knowledge that [the statement] was false or with a reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.”Times v. Sullivan, 376 US 254 (1964). In subsequent cases, the court extended the constitutional doctrine further, applying it not merely to government officials but to public figures, people who voluntarily place themselves in the public eye or who involuntarily find themselves the objects of public scrutiny. Whether a private person is or is not a public figure is a difficult question that has so far eluded rigorous definition and has been answered only from case to case. A CEO of a private corporation ordinarily will be considered a private figure unless he puts himself in the public eye—for example, by starring in the company’s television commercials.

Based on the First Amendment of the US Constitution, a public figure cannot recover in a defamation case unless the plaintiff’s defamation was done with actual malice.

Invasion of Privacy

The right of privacy—the right “to be let alone”—did not receive judicial recognition until the twentieth century, and its legal formulation is still evolving. In fact there is no single right of privacy. Courts and commentators have discerned at least four different types of interests: (1) the right to control the appropriation of your name and picture for commercial purposes, (2) the right to be free of intrusion on your “personal space” or seclusion, (3) freedom from public disclosure of embarrassing and intimate facts of your personal life, and (4) the right not to be presented in a “false light.”

Appropriation of Name or Likeness

The earliest privacy interest recognized by the courts was appropriation of name or likeness: someone else placing your photograph on a billboard or cereal box as a model or using your name as endorsing a product or in the product name. A New York statute makes it a misdemeanor to use the name, portrait, or picture of any person for advertising purposes or for the purposes of trade (business) without first obtaining written consent. The law also permits the aggrieved person to sue and to recover damages for unauthorized profits and also to have the court enjoin (judicially block) any further unauthorized use of the plaintiff’s name, likeness, or image. This is particularly useful to celebrities.

Because the publishing and advertising industries are concentrated heavily in New York, the statute plays an important part in advertising decisions made throughout the country. Deciding what “commercial” or “trade” purposes are is not always easy. Thus a newsmagazine may use a baseball player’s picture on its cover without first obtaining written permission, but a chocolate manufacturer could not put the player’s picture on a candy wrapper without consent.

Personal Space

One form of intrusion upon a person’s solitude—trespass—has long been actionable under common law. Physical invasion of home or other property is not a new tort. But in recent years, the notion of intrusion has been broadened considerably. Now, taking photos of someone else with your cell phone in a locker room could constitute invasion of the right to privacy. Reading someone else’s mail or e-mail could also constitute an invasion of the right to privacy. Photographing someone on a city street is not tortious, but subsequent use of the photograph could be. Whether the invasion is in a public or private space, the amount of damages will depend on how the image or information is disclosed to others.

Public Disclosure of Embarassing Facts

Circulation of false statements that do injury to a person are actionable under the laws of defamation. What about true statements that might be every bit as damaging—for example, disclosure of someone’s income tax return, revealing how much he earned? The general rule is that if the facts are truly private and of no “legitimate” concern to the public, then their disclosure is a violation of the right to privacy. But a person who is in the public eye cannot claim the same protection.

False Light

A final type of privacy invasion is that which paints a false picture in a publication. Though false, it might not be libelous, since the publication need contain nothing injurious to reputation. Indeed, the publication might even glorify the plaintiff, making him seem more heroic than he actually is. Subject to the First Amendment requirement that the plaintiff must show intent or extreme recklessness, statements that put a person in a false light, like a fictionalized biography, are actionable.

Intentional Torts Explained


See Also

  • Tort
  • Product Liability



  1. “Business and the Legal Environment”, by Don Mayer, Daniel M. Warner and George J. Siedel.

See Also

Intentional torts: Open and Free Legal Research of US Law

Federal Primary Materials

The U.S. federal government system consists of executive, legislative, and judicial branches, each of which creates information that can be the subject of legal research about Intentional torts. This part provides references, in relation to Intentional torts, to the legislative process, the federal judiciary, and the primary sources of federal law (cases, statutes, and regulations).

Federal primary materials about Intentional torts by content types:

Laws and Regulations

US Constitution
Federal Statutory Codes and Legislation

Federal Case Law and Court Materials

U.S. Courts of Appeals
United States courts of appeals, inclouding bankruptcy courts and bankcruptcy appellate panels:

Federal Administrative Materials and Resources

Presidential Materials

Materials that emanate from the President’s lawmaking function include executive orders for officers in departments and agencies and proclamations for announcing ceremonial or commemorative policies. Presidential materials available include:

Executive Materials

Federal Legislative History Materials

Legislative history traces the legislative process of a particular bill (about Intentional torts and other subjects) for the main purpose of determining the legislators’ intent behind the enactment of a law to explain or clarify ambiguities in the language or the perceived meaning of that law (about Intentional torts or other topics), or locating the current status of a bill and monitoring its progress.

State Administrative Materials and Resources

State regulations are rules and procedures promulgated by state agencies (which may apply to Intentional torts and other topics); they are a binding source of law. In addition to promulgating regulations, state administrative boards and agencies often have judicial or quasi-judicial authority and may issue administrative decisions affecting Intentional torts. Finding these decisions can be challenging. In many cases, researchers about Intentional torts should check state agency web sites for their regulations, decisions, forms, and other information of interest.

State rules and regulations are found in codes of regulations and administrative codes (official compilation of all rules and regulations, organized by subject matter). Search here:

State opinions of the Attorney General (official written advisory opinions on issues of state law related to Intentional torts when formerly requested by a designated government officer):

Tools and Forms

Law in Other Regions

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