Torts are acts committed by one or more individuals or entities (“tortfeasors”) that result in harm to another individual or entity. The harm is often physical injury, but it can also include reputational harm or property damages. Most torts are caused by negligence or carelessness, but some are intentional. Intentional torts, such as battery or false imprisonment, are those that carry an element of intent. Generally, intentional torts are harder to prove than negligence, since a plaintiff must show that the defendant did something on purpose.
When Is a Tort Intentional?
A tortfeasor’s state of mind determines whether a tort is intentional. If, for example, a truck driver is distracted and turns right without looking carefully, hitting a motorcyclist who has the right of way, the resulting truck accident is the result of negligence. The truck driver owed a duty to the motorcyclist and others to use reasonable care while driving, and this duty was breached, resulting in harm. The truck driver in that case has not committed the intentional tort of battery.
In contrast, if the truck driver has a grudge against a particular motorcyclist and turns right into the motorcyclist, hoping to teach him or her a lesson, he has committed the intentional tort of battery.
Proving intent can be a challenge. There are three types of intent that a plaintiff may be required to show in an intentional tort case: willfulness, knowingly causing harm, or recklessness. In other words, a plaintiff needs to prove that the defendant meant to hurt him or her, understood the actions would result in the harm, or acted without showing any caution. If you hit someone in order to hurt him, intent is straightforward. Similarly, if you throw a rock from your apartment window overlooking a crowded city street, you likely understand that your actions will probably hurt someone.
Suppose, however, you stopped someone whom you believe has been bullying your child and shout at her in a corner at the playground. The person is so upset at being accused and detained by you that she suffers a heart attack. To prove false imprisonment, the person would have to show willful, unlawful detention without consent. It may be difficult for that person to show that your detention of her was willful because she could have walked away.
Often, a defendant’s defense in an intentional tort case is that he or she did not intend to commit the act that harmed the plaintiff. If there was no intent, he or she may be able to avoid liability. In many cases, it is important for a plaintiff to allege both negligent and intentional torts in connection with the same event so that, even if he or she cannot prove the intentional tort, he or she can still recover based on negligence.
Types of Intentional Torts
In addition to battery and false imprisonment, there are many other types of intentional torts, including assault, slander, defamation, misrepresentation, and fraud. As noted above, harms that demand redress are not only physical harms, such as those arising out of car accidents or a slip and fall, but also reputational harms. For example, defamation involves making false statements that harm reputation, and it is a category of tort that includes both slander and libel.
Although assault, battery, and wrongful death may be intentional torts that are the basis of civil actions, they can also be crimes. When a person who loses a civil suit is found liable, he or she can be subject to a judgment requiring him or her to pay monetary damages to the prevailing party. This holds true even in a wrongful death case involving intentional conduct by a defendant. In contrast, the government brings criminal proceedings against a defendant, and while a fine or restitution may be assessed, one of the primary potential punishments is imprisonment.
Crimes must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, which is a high standard. In most states, personal injury cases must be proven by a preponderance of the evidence, which is a much lower standard. The differences in these standards means that someone can be held liable in a civil suit for assault, battery, or wrongful death even though he or she was found innocent in a criminal proceeding.