Chapter 5: Torts

When most people hear the word “tort” they think of a tasty, multilayered cake filled with cream, fruits, or jam. Although not tasty like torte desserts, legal torts are equally complex.

What are legal torts?

Torts are state laws that let people who get hurt sue the person who caused the harm. In some cases, tort laws can provide money to hurt individuals—the person causing the harm would have to pay the hurt individual.

Torts: intentional v. unintentional?

There are two main types of torts: intentional torts and unintentional torts. The main difference between the two types is the difference in the mindset of the person committing the wrong. For intentional torts, the focus is on whether someone meant to do something bad to someone else. For unintentional torts, the focus is on whether someone acted unreasonably even though he or she did not mean to hurt someone else.

Classroom Activity: Discuss the scenarios below to identify whether Tim committed an intentional or unintentional tort.

  • Scenario 1: Tim swung his bat and hit Matt in the head because he was mad Matt used his prized trapper keeper.
  • Scenario 2: Tim swung his bat to hit a baseball and it accidently hit Matt in the head on his follow through.

If someone commits an intentional tort then they will have to pay the injured person. But if someone acts unintentionally, we must look at their actions and figure out if they were reasonable.

Tim’s actions in Scenario 1 were intentional while his actions in Scenario 2 were unintentional.

Unintentional Torts: was the action reasonable?

In Scenario 2 above, Tim would only have to pay Matt under a tort law if Tim’s actions were unreasonable. Determining the “reasonableness” of a person’s action can be difficult. We must look at the circumstances surrounding Tim’s action to decide whether it was reasonable.

Classroom Activity: Consider the two scenarios below and discuss whether Tim’s actions were reasonable under the circumstances.

  • Scenario 2a: Tim was playing baseball in the teacher’s classroom with his friend Tommy. His friend Tommy threw a pitch from the back of the room to Tim at the front of the classroom. Just as Tim swung to hit the ball, Matt walked into his class through the doorway and Tim clunked him in the head with his backswing.
  • Scenario 2b: Tim stepped up for bat in his Little League Championship Game. The pitcher threw a fastball right over the plate. Tim crushed the ball for a grand slam to win the game! Just as Tim was finishing his backswing, Matt, the catcher, lost his balance because he was wearing worn out cleats and fell right into the path of the bat.

Tim’s actions in Scenario 2a were unreasonable because he should not have been playing baseball in class. But Tim’s actions in Scenario 2b were reasonable because he was expected to be swinging a bat as part of the game and he was following the rules of the game.

Has a tort occurred?

When intent is clear or when a person acted unreasonably, a plaintiff (the hurt person) will have an easy time proving his or her case in court. A jury, which is a group of twelve adults, decides whether a tort occurred.

The jury hears evidence from the plaintiff and the defendant (the party being accused of the tort) to decide whether the defendant is liable. If the jury finds the defendant is liable, it awards the plaintiff money for the plaintiff’s injury. The money comes from the defendant. Unlike criminal cases, however, the defendant does not go to jail if he or she is liable for committing a tort.

Paid for by the Missouri Bar, Mischa Buford Epps, Executive Director PO Box 119, Jefferson City, MO 65102