What Does Tort Law Mean?

This article is part of a series on courses you’ll take in law school. Check out What is Administrative Law? for more.

So what is tort law? If you’re anything like me, you probably didn’t hear about torts until you started reading up on law school. If you want to get into the etymology of the word, tort comes from the Latin word torquere, which means to twist.

You’re probably thinking that’s the perfect word to describe a lawyer. They twist things.

Joking aside, tort law is the law of civil liability for causing some kind of harm to another person. There’s a wide array of torts, but the biggest one is negligence.

What does Negligence cover?

Negligence covers just about everything. To put it simply, tort law covers every instance somebody caused injury, to a person or property, in a negligent or reckless manner. Every single tort action has four elements.

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Duty. Breach. Causation. Damages.

Once you get to law school you’ll get it beat into your head, but that’s it.

Torts can’t be that easy, can they?

Oh, if only they were.

Let’s take the element of duty. Every person out there has a duty to everyone around them to act reasonably. In other words, you have a duty to not be dumb around other people.

Issues come up, though, with what kind of duties people have in certain situations. For example, you’ll have a different duty to a trespasser on your property than you would to somebody coming into a store you own. You’ll have a different duty as a doctor, lawyer, or even a parent.

Shoot, even kids have a duty to act like a reasonable kid of their age and experience.

That is just the beginning.

Once you figure out if somebody had a duty to someone else, then you have to figure out if they breached that duty.

What if somebody was driving down a busy street, carrying a bunch of fireworks in his truck, and they went off? Then, someone 20 blocks away dropped a glass of water in a store because the noise surprised her, and someone else slipped on the water. Did the person in the car have a duty to the lady that slipped on the water?
Not sure?

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Trust me, it gets murkier. If you don’t believe me, try reading this excellent and infamous tort law case. It’s a good one. It involves two guys, a train, some firecrackers, and an innocent bystander.

Stranger than Fiction

Torts is probably one of the most entertaining classes out there. Every time I read a new case I just shook my head and thought “you can’t make this stuff up.”

Torts are out there because people just don’t act reasonably all the time. When they don’t the craziest things happen. And that’s when the lawyers step in, to decide who takes the blame (and pays the bill) for what.


  • Randall

    Randall earned his JD from the University of Denver in 2013. He received his BA in Communications and Social Science from the University of Washington in 2010. Randall took the LSAT twice, and managed to improve his score by 14 points the second time around. He paid the price of learning to score high on the LSAT and hopes to help other potential law students avoid similar pain.

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