What is tort law? A tort is a civil wrongdoing—whether intentional or negligent, where an individual suffers a loss or harm, which results in legal liability for the person who causes it. Tort law aims to redress the wrongdoing and compensate the victim(s), typically by awarding monetary damages.
Three Categories of Torts
Three general categories of torts exist: intentional, negligence, and strict liability.
Intentional torts are wrongdoings that a person knowingly commits, resulting in a harm. Common examples include:
- False imprisonment.
- Intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Johnny Depp v. Amber Heard exemplifies an intentional tort court case. Depp filed a defamation lawsuit against Heard over a Washington Post article that insinuated she had experienced violence from him.
Negligence occurs when the defendant acts in an unreasonably unsafe manner, they owe some sort of duty of care to the victim and the victim is harmed because of the defendant’s action or inaction. Common examples include:
- Slip and fall accidents.
- Vehicle accidents.
- Pedestrian accidents.
- Medical malpractice.
In Sanderson v. Paltrow, Terry Sanderson sued actress Gwyneth Paltrow, alleging her reckless skiing caused her to collide with him from behind. Sanderson claimed he suffered four broken ribs, a concussion, and lasting brain damage, affecting his daily life and personal relationships.
Strict liability torts do not depend on the defendant’s degree of care. Instead, courts focus on whether a particular result or harm occurred in strict liability cases. Examples of strict liability torts include:
- Manufacturing defects.
- Animal attacks.
- Abnormally dangerous activities.
Klein v. Pyrodyne, is an example of a strict liability tort case. Klein sued pyrotechnic company Pyrodyne for products liability and strict liability when the plaintiff was injured by an aerial shell at a public fireworks exhibition, where the defendant set up and discharged fireworks.
Massive Tort Costs
In the U.S., tort damages began to rise in the 1950s. In the 1930s, awards greater than $10,000 were uncommon, but only 20 years later, 53 verdicts of $100,000 or more occurred in a single nine-month period—a cumulative impact of over $5 million in just nine months.
Today, excessive lawsuits drain our economy and raise costs for businesses and consumers. ILR’s report, Tort Costs in America: An Empirical Analysis of Costs and Compensation of the U.S. Tort System, found that the tort system cost $443 billion in 2020—2.1% of the national gross domestic product and $3,621 per household.
Unfortunately, the report shows that the U.S. tort system ineffectively relieves victims; only 53 cents of every dollar reach them—the remaining 47 percent goes to litigation costs and expenses. Lawsuit abuse makes the tort system costly without benefiting victims.
America’s small businesses also suffer from excessive tort costs. Though they are vital employers and economic boosters, they face unique exposure to litigation system costs. ILR’s research paper, Tort Costs for Small Businesses, indicates that businesses earning $10 million or less annually represent only 20 percent of commercial revenues but bear 48 percent of commercial tort costs—an estimated $160 billion in 2021.
Tort inflation refers to the troubling trend of dramatically increasing costs and verdicts in civil litigation. Tort inflation is driven by factors like a shift in societal views to use jury decisions as a means for social change, trial lawyer advertising, and outside investors funding litigation for a portion of the award or settlement (also known as third party litigation funding). Significant increases in tort costs ultimately lead to higher costs for everyone and can harm businesses trying to grow.
Mass Tort Litigation
Trial lawyers use mass tort litigation as a tactic in hopes of overwhelming businesses and forcing settlements, often leaving claimants with less money than expected due to high legal fees and uneven damage distributions. ILR research, Unlocking the Code: The Value of Bankruptcy to Resolve Mass Torts, examines how the bankruptcy system is a simpler, more effective means of providing relief to tort claimants than the mass tort litigation system.
Now you know the answer to the question, “what is tort law?” At its core, the tort law system is intended to address wrongdoings and offer relief to victims, but as it stands, it is frequently manipulated for personal or financial gain. Legitimate claims can take years to resolve, and plaintiffs often receive less compensation due to high attorneys’ fees and other expenses. For defendants, tort litigation costs and legal fees mean settling is sometimes less costly than fighting even frivolous claims in court. The tort law system requires significant reform to ensure a more balanced and just outcome, one that prioritizes the well-being of those genuinely harmed rather than serving as a financial windfall for plaintiffs’ lawyers.