February 2015 Newsletter
The Tort Definition Debate
Apart from legislation granting a right to sue for a specific harm, personal injury law generally consists of tort law and the civil procedure for enforcing it. Although tort law is a major kind of law, among many legal scholars there is no generally agreed definition of the word “tort.” This article discusses the tort definition debate.
In the late 20th century, one of the leading texts on the topic of torts was professor William L. Prosser’s Handbook of The Law of Torts. The professor defined the debate in his first sentence: “A really satisfactory definition of a tort has yet to be found.” Although he presented several definitions of a tort, he concluded that no single definition adequately captured its essence.
A judge in Baltimore, Maryland, however, was not so hesitant. In a Case & Comment magazine article entitled “From Tort to Tortilla (A Fascinating Family of Words),” judge Henry L. Rogers pointed out that the Latin version of the word is “torqueo, torquere” meaning “to twist.” The judge concluded that “one who commits a tort is acting in some kind of twisted way.” Accordingly, a tort is twisted conduct for which its victim is permitted to sue its perpetrator.
Professor Prosser 2
Although he said that there was no satisfactory definition of a tort, professor Prosser did offer one. He noted that the word tort “was at one time in common use in English as a general synonym for ‘wrong’.” Clearly, a tort was a wrong. Professor Prosser concluded that “Broadly speaking, a tort is a civil wrong, other than breach of contract, for which a court will provide a remedy in the form of an action for damages.”
Between professor Prosser and judge Rodgers it can be said that a tort is a twisted conduct. It is twisted conduct that is a civil wrong. It is a civil wrong for which a victim can bring an action other than breach of contract (or some other major kind of law). A tort law action is an action for money damages.
Inherent in the law is the idea of setting standards. Torts can also be viewed as standards of conduct apart from criminal law and other major kinds of law.
The are many kinds of wrongful conduct. Your lawyer can advise you as to whether the circumstances of your case give you the right to sue under tort law.