Tort Law

Author:Jeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps

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A body of rights, obligations, and remedies that is applied by courts in civil proceedings to provide relief for persons who have suffered harm from the wrongful acts of others. The person who sustains injury or suffers pecuniary damage as the result of tortious conduct is known as the plaintiff, and the person who is responsible for inflicting the injury and incurs liability for the damage is known as the defendant or tortfeasor.

Three elements must be established in every tort action. First, the plaintiff must establish that the defendant was under a legal duty to act in a particular fashion. Second, the plaintiff must demonstrate that the defendant breached this duty by failing to conform his or her behavior accordingly. Third, the plaintiff must prove that he suffered injury or loss as a direct result of the defendant's breach.

The law of torts is derived from a combination of common-law principles and legislative enactments. Unlike actions for breach of contract, tort actions are not dependent upon an agreement between the parties to a lawsuit. Unlike criminal prosecutions, which are brought by the government, tort actions are brought by private citizens. Remedies for tortious acts include money damages and injunctions (court orders compelling or forbidding particular conduct). Tortfeasors are subject to neither fine nor incarceration in civil court.

The word tort comes from the Latin term torquere, which means "twisted or wrong." The English COMMON LAW recognized no separate legal action in tort. Instead, the British legal system afforded litigants two central avenues of redress: TRESPASS for direct injuries, and actions "on the case" for indirect injuries. Gradually, the common law recognized other civil actions, including DEFAMATION, LIBEL, and slander. Most of the American colonies adopted the English common law in the eighteenth century. During the nineteenth century, the first U.S. legal treatises were published in which a portion of the common law was synthesized under the heading of torts.

Over the last century, tort law has touched on nearly every aspect of life in the United States. In economic affairs, tort law provides remedies for businesses that are harmed by the unfair and deceptive trade practices of a competitor. In the workplace, tort law protects employees from the intentional or negligent infliction of emotional distress. Tort law also helps regulate the environment, providing remedies against both individuals and businesses that pollute the air, land, and water to such an extent that it amounts to a NUISANCE.

Sometimes tort law governs life's most intimate relations, as when individuals are held liable for knowingly transmitting communicable diseases to their sexual partners. When a loved one is killed by a tortious act, surviving family members may bring a WRONGFUL DEATH action to recover pecuniary loss. Tort law also governs a wide array of behavior in less intimate settings, including the operation of motor vehicles on public roadways.

The law of torts serves four objectives. First, it seeks to compensate victims for injuries suffered by the culpable action or inaction of others. Second, it seeks to shift the cost of such injuries to the person or persons who are legally responsible for inflicting them. Third, it seeks to discourage injurious, careless, and risky behavior in the future. Fourth, it seeks to vindicate legal rights and interests that have been compromised, diminished, or emasculated. In theory these objectives are served when tort liability is imposed on tortfeasors for intentional wrongdoing, NEGLIGENCE, and ultrahazardous activities.

Intentional Torts

An intentional tort is any deliberate interference with a legally recognized interest, such as the rights to bodily integrity, emotional tranquility, dominion over property, seclusion from public scrutiny, and freedom from confinement or deception. These interests are violated by the intentional torts of assault, BATTERY, trespass, FALSE IMPRISONMENT, invasion of privacy, conversion, MISREPRESENTATION, and FRAUD. The intent element of these torts is satisfied when the tortfeasor acts with the desire to bring about harmful consequences and is substantially certain that such consequences will follow. Mere reckless behavior, sometimes called willful and wanton behavior, does not rise to the level of an intentional tort.

Under certain circumstances the law permits individuals to intentionally pursue a course of conduct that will necessarily result in harm to others. The harm that results from such conduct is said to be outweighed by more important interests. Self-preservation is one such interest and is embodied in the right of SELF-DEFENSE. Individuals may exert sufficient force in self-defense

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Breast Implant Lawsuits

When a company produces a dangerous or defective product that injures an individual, the injured person may sue the company in a products-liability tort action, demanding compensation for the injuries. To prevail in a products-liability action, the plaintiff must demonstrate that the injury-causing product was defective, that the defect existed at the time the product left the control of the defendant, and that such defect was the proximate cause of the plaintiff's injury. If many individuals have been injured by the same product, the court may permit the filing of a CLASS ACTION lawsuit, in which a small number of plaintiffs represent the entire group of injured victims.

One of the more controversial class actions involved the silicone breast-implant litigation. Notwithstanding a class totaling more than 400,000 plaintiffs, a settlement that offered more than $3 billion in compensation for their alleged injuries, and a federal government ban on the product, no evidence was ever provided that conclusively linked silicone breast implants with any form of serious disease. In fact, following the settlement at least two scientific studies affirmatively concluded that no such link exists. In the wake of those studies, manufacturers have sought government approval to resume selling silicone breast implants to the public.

In 1962 Dow Corning became the first company to manufacture and market silicone breast implants. The implants consisted of a rubbery silicone envelope containing silicone gel. Plastic surgeons soon discovered that a certain (and as yet undetermined) percentage of implants rupture on their own, either because of trauma to the breast or because the implant simply tears. In many cases, the gel stays either in the implants or in the immediate vicinity. In rare...

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