For followers of American politics, "tort law" is probably a somewhat familiar but not necessarily clear phrase. It is frequently fodder for argument – how to reduce torts, etc. is a subject of political debate. This article should clear up what a tort is and perhaps suggest why tort law has a mixed reputation, despite being an important area of civil law.
A tort is a civil wrong. It is not necessarily illegal – it just means that harm has been done to someone and seeking damages is possible. It is not an area of criminal law, and anyone can bring a case against anyone.
The area of tort law defines what is and is not an injury. In other words, in cases where the action is not legal, tort law defines whether or not the activity it is still injurious. Injury doesn’t have to be physical, it can be emotional, financial, damage done to one’s reputation, etc. Tort law can relate to areas as varied as car accidents, product liability, toxic environments, copyright infringement, medical malpractice, and other forms of negligence, nuisance, and general liability.
Tort law generally relates to situations where someone is accusing someone else of having a duty of care towards them that has not been met. For example, if you find something in your food that should not be there when dining in a restaurant. These are torts of "negligence." It also applies to trespassing situations or defamation, in which case they are known as "intentional torts."
The field is a broad one; it is also a controversial one. It is often a point of political disagreement as some people think the sphere of tort law should be restricted. People of this school of thought tend to believe products and companies are held liable for behaviors they cannot control. One of the most famous tort cases is the McDonald’s coffee case, Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants. In popular imagination, this case is about a woman who should’ve known the coffee was hot, and who someone ended up hurting herself despite this obvious possibility. And yet, the company who served the coffee was held responsible.
In reality, the Liebeck v. McDonald’s case was more serious than many people today realize. Ms. Liebeck received her coffee from a drive-through window and accidentally spilled it on her lap, suffering third degree burns. The damage was not a matter of inconvenience or minor pain, and the case was made (successfully) that the coffee was dangerously hot. A recent HBO documentary highlighted this and other cases that give tort law a more human dimension. Part of the reason personal injury cases sometimes seem so absurd is that companies are usually under great pressure to produce a safe product – our reaction when they don’t can be to assume that it is the consumer’s fault, but that often isn’t fair and is not necessarily true.
Hopefully this overview gives you a better sense of what the area of tort law entails and what people are arguing about when they debate over tort law. It is a crucial part of our legal system that protects consumers and holds individuals and companies accountable for their wrongs. Tort law at its best promotes fairness and rounds out our legal system.