What is Tort Law?

Tort law is the part of civil law that deals with acts or omissions that violate general social duties and cause harm—such an act or omission is called a “tort,” from words in French and Latin that mean a “wrong” or something “twisted” and unjust. In other words, if someone has wronged you, tort law might be the way to right that wrong.

But that’s a heavy definition, so let’s break it down a little bit.

You probably know you’ve been wronged because you’ve suffered some kind of harm. We usually think of physical injuries, but harm could also mean damage to or loss of property.

When someone wrongs you by not honoring an agreement you have with them, that would generally be a question for contract law, not tort law. Instead, tort law deals with actions or omissions that are wrong because society has generally decided we all have certain duties of how to treat each other even if we haven’t specifically agreed to those rules in a contract. For example, we all have duties not to punch people, steal things, or drive dangerously and cause car accidents. And notice that we usually say “acts or omissions,” because sometimes people do things they should not do, and sometimes they fail to do things they should do.

So tort law differs from contract law on the one hand, but it also differs from criminal law. If someone punches you, steals your property, or drives recklessly, they might be committing both a tort and a crime. But criminal law is about the government holding people accountable for committing wrongs against the public order, which harms society in general. The purpose of tort law is to right wrongs between private parties, mainly by making the wrongdoer compensate the victim of the tort for the injuries and other harm they suffered. The fact that it’s about disputes between private parties (individuals, but also businesses or organizations, or even the government in certain situations, such as poor road design) is what makes it part of “civil law.”

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