Personal injury Library

What Is a Tort?

You may have heard the term "tort" before, maybe when it was being used by a lawyer on TV or in some other legal context. But what does tort mean? What exactly is a tort?

Answer: A tort is an act that harms someone, for which the offender can be sued. The term also refers to the body of law concerning such harmful acts.

How Lawyers Use the Word "Tort"

There are two ways that lawyers use the word "tort."

  • When referring to a specific type of tort.
  • When referring to the body of law concerning the various types of torts.

Referring to Specific Types of Torts

A lawyer may have occasion to use the term to refer to a specific type of wrongful conduct that causes harm.

Example: A lawyer may say something like, "I sued Mr. Salem for committing the tort of assault." Here, she's using the term when referring to a specific kind of tort.

The kinds of torts that one can be sued for include:

  • Negligence
  • Battery
  • Assault
  • Defamation (slander, libel)
  • Tortious interference with a contract
  • Nuisance
  • Conspiracy
  • Conversion

...and numerous others.

Referring to the Body of Law Called Torts

The law is complex. To make the law easier to conceptualize or discuss, lawyers like to categorize it. When a lawyer refers to torts in the categorical sense, they're talking about the body of the law that covers torts and everything related to them.

Example: A lawyer may say something like, "We filed a tort case against Mr. Salem." With that short phrase, she's effectively saying, "I'm suing a guy who harmed my client" and "this is a case that is filed in state district court" and "we hope to recover financial compensation" and "we will go through discovery and depositions along the way to a jury trial" and "the burden is on us to prove our case." To the trained ear of a lawyer, there is a lot of meaning conveyed by the use of the term when a lawyer uses it in the categorical sense.

An analogy can help make sense of how the word "tort" is used as a category.

In America we have a large military. Said military is broken down into the departments of the Army, Navy, and Air Force, and each of those represent a branch within the hierarchy of the military structure. Beneath them are other subsets of the military:

When one categorizes the law, it works kind of the same way:

As you can see, we start with the broadest category called American law, which then branches into torts, criminal law, property law, contracts, etc. Lawyers typically call these branches "bodies of law."

Now, one could look at the diagrams above concerning the US military or American law and it would be fair for them to say "Hey, wait a minute. What about the National Guard?" or "What about product liability law?" or "What about the Army Reserves?" or "What about the tort of conversion?" Why aren't any of those on the list?

The point of these diagrams is not to provide an exhaustive list of every subset of the military or of every body or subset of American law. Rather it is to introduce you to the idea of categorizing things in a hierarchical format so we can understand how the term is used semantically by lawyers as a tool of categorization.

Within the world of categorizing the law in a hierarchical format, torts is the body of law concerning suing people for harm they've caused, as distinguished from criminal law (the law of putting people in jail) or property law (the law of ownership and possession of property), contract law (the law of holding people to the deals they made), etc.

Two Subcategories of Torts: Unintentional Torts and Intentional Torts

We separate torts into two general categories: unintentional and intentional.

Unintentional torts are those wrongful acts that the offender didn't mean to do. While the acts were accidental, the offender is still legally accountable for the conduct.

Example: Bob missed a stop sign while driving at night. Because he missed the stop sign, he rammed the driver's side of another person's car. Bob did not intentionally cause the other driver's injuries. Nevertheless, Bob is still liable. The fact that he didn't do it on purpose doesn't matter.

On the flip side, intentional torts are those wrongful acts where the offender deliberately inflicted harm on someone.

Example: Gabe doesn't like his coworker Shantel. Gabe devises a plan to get Shantel fired from her job by spreading a lie that she stole money from the company. Ultimately, Shantel is fired. In this situation, Gabe didn't cause Shantel to get fired through his carelessness. Rather, he did it on purpose. Thus, he committed an intentional tort.

Negligence is the Most Common Type of Tort

Now, as we mentioned earlier, there are numerous types of torts, but negligence is by far the most common type of tort someone will sue over. Someone commits the tort of negligence when they owe someone a duty not to hurt them, they breach that duty, the victim incurs losses, and the offender's conduct is the cause of the losses.

As you can see, a lot of bad conduct can be categorized as negligence.


When a tort is committed, someone is physically hurt, has their good name tarnished, has their business ruined, or is in some other way harmed by the offender's conduct. Ultimately, the goal of tort law is to promote a society where people are held accountable for their actions towards others, whether said actions were unintentional or intentional. If not for tort law, then offenders could do bad things to someone, and the victim is left to bear the cost alone. With tort law, the offender is forced to pay for their bad conduct.

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