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6.2: What is a Tort?


  • Introduce the definition of torts
  • Become more familiar with vocabulary related to torts


  1. Read about the definition of torts
  2. Answer the questions

1. What is a Tort?

A tort is usually defined as a noncontractual wrong for which there is a private right of action.

  Let’s examine what the above definition means.


First, we say a tort is “noncontractual” because in the United States committing a tort is not the same as breaking a contract.  A contract is a legally enforceable promise.  If a person violates the terms of his contract, we say that he has breached the contract and the non-breaching party is entitled to a remedy. 

Torts do not depend on a contractual relationship. For example, if David carelessly drives down the street and crashes his car into Victor’s car, Victor should receive compensation from David.  David is liable to Victor based on tort law, not contract law – –  we can assume that David did not sign a contract promising that he would avoid a collision.

On the other hand, some torts do involve fraud or wrongdoing in connection with a contract.  A plaintiff can sue a defendant for fraud if the defendant deceives the plaintiff into entering into a contract.  Also, a plaintiff may sue a defendant for interfering in a contract by causing another party to breach the contract. But the defendant is not being sued for breaching the contract – – the lawsuit is based on conduct outside the contract.


A tort requires some sort of “wrong.”  When discussing torts, “wrong” does not necessarily mean someone deliberately tried to hurt another person.  A wrong simply means that the defendant did something, or failed to do something, which resulted in an injury to the plaintiff. 

Turning to our example at the very beginning of this unit, let’s think about the deliveryman and his actions.   The deliveryman was not trying to hurt Patty, however, we would probably agree that the deliveryman should not have left his box in the middle of the sidewalk. 

Patty would say the deliveryman committed a tort because (i) leaving a box where people were walking was a careless thing to do; and (ii) she was injured.

Of course, you can probably think of reasons why the deliveryman should not have to compensate Patty.  The deliveryman did not cause the coffee to be unusually hot – – that was the coffee shop’s fault.  Also, Patty knew that her coffee was very hot so she probably should not have been running down the sidewalk.

“…private right of action…

A private right of action means that a private individual can bring the lawsuit.

In a criminal action, the state commences a case against the defendant for violating the law.

But for a wrong to be a tort, the law must recognize a private right of action that the injured party may bring against the defendant. That is, the plaintiff must have the power to go to court to seek compensation from the defendant.

To summarize, in a tort case there is plaintiff who allegedly suffered an injury to himself or to his property that did not result from a breach of contract.  He wants someone else to pay for the injury and the law gives him the power to seek compensation from the defendant.  Tort law says to the plaintiff, “You can personally go and sue the defendant or defendants you think are responsible for your injury.” 

2. Answer the Questions