The area of tort law has developed over the course of centuries, and many concepts in tort law have evolved from common law. While some torts have been expanded and defined by legislation and administrative regulation, many torts and defenses to torts are derived from case law. Torts are often split into two categories: intentional torts and negligent torts. Below is an outline of key cases in tort law with links to the full text of virtually every case, provided free by Justia.
Intentional torts describe wrongdoings that result from an individual’s intentional act. Common intentional torts are assault, battery, false imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and trespass to land or chattels. Common defenses to intentional torts include consent and the privilege of necessity. Generally, proving an intentional tort requires showing a volitional act, intent, and causation.
Garratt v. Dailey 一 A child under the age of six may be capable of committing an intentional tort. Age is a significant consideration when establishing one’s knowledge and understanding, but not an independent factor. One must have a substantial certainty that actions would result in contact or the apprehension of contact, rather than posing the risk of contact, to satisfy the mental state required for assault and battery.
Wallace v. Rosen 一 The mere knowledge and appreciation of a risk without substantial certainty does not satisfy intent. It is also not necessary that one intends to harm, but only that one intends to act in a way that legally violates another party’s interests. Furthermore, one may successfully raise the defense of consent to physical touching when the type of physical contact is typical and necessary in most circumstances of life. An ordinary person would not find such contact offensive.
Talmage v. Smith 一 The intent to make contact with another person and inflict an injury may be transferred to another party so as to make someone intending an injury upon a certain person liable for inflicting that injury on another, unintended person.
Assault and Battery
A battery generally occurs when one intends to inflict harmful or offensive bodily contact on someone else, or an imminent apprehension of such contact, and harmful or offensive contact directly or indirectly results. An assault occurs when one intends to inflict harmful or offensive contact on someone else, or an imminent apprehension of such contact, and the other person is thereby put in imminent apprehension of such contact.
Baldinger v. Banks 一 An act that, directly or indirectly, is the legal cause of harmful contact with another person is a battery if the act was done with the intention of bringing about harmful or offensive contact or an apprehension of harmful or offensive contact to another person, and there was no consent or privilege. Only an intent to inflict an offensive bodily contact is necessary, rather than an intent to harm.
Western Union Tel. Co. v. Hill 一 An assault occurs if there is an intentional and unlawful offer or attempt to touch another person in a harmful or offensive manner under such circumstances as to create a well-founded apprehension of imminent battery and the apparent present ability to commit such battery.
Leichtman v. WLW Jacor Communications 一 One may commit a battery by blowing smoke in another person’s face, since smoke particles have physical properties capable of making contact. Contact offensive to a reasonable sense of personal dignity is offensive contact. A battery is actionable, no matter how trivial.
False imprisonment occurs when one intends to confine another person, and one’s actions directly or indirectly result in such confinement. Legal justifications for confinement are limited.
When one protects property, the use of deadly force or force likely to cause serious bodily harm is not permitted unless there is a threat of death or serious bodily harm to those on the premises.
Katko v. Briney 一 Property owners may not use deadly force or force that is likely to cause serious harm against a trespasser unless the trespasser threatens death or serious bodily harm to the owners or occupiers of the premises. One may not use a mechanical device to inflict harm upon another person that one would not have the privilege to inflict if they were present. Theft of property alone never privileges a possessor to use deadly force.
Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress
Intentional infliction of emotional distress occurs when one intentionally or recklessly causes severe emotional harm to another person by extreme or outrageous conduct. One may be liable for both the emotional harm and any bodily harm resulting from the emotional harm.
State Rubbish Collectors Assoc. v. Siliznoff 一 Intentional infliction of emotional distress may be based on threats of physical violence, even if those threats do not meet the definition of assault. This type of intentional tort arises from outrageous behavior that is intended to cause distress and actually does cause it.
Harris v. Jones 一 One may be liable for intentional infliction of emotional distress if their conduct was intentional or reckless, the conduct was extreme and outrageous, there is a causal connection between the wrongful conduct and the emotional distress, and the emotional distress was severe.
Defenses to Intentional Torts
Common defenses to intentional torts include consent and the privilege of necessity. Consent may be either express or implied. Consent gained by duress or fraud is invalid. The doctrine of necessity dictates that one may be privileged to perform an otherwise tortious act in an emergency to protect one’s own interests or the greater interests of society.
O’Brien v. Cunard S.S. Co. 一 If one’s overt behavior indicates consent, another person may be justified and not liable for assault, whatever one’s unexpressed feelings were.
Hackbart v. Cincinnati Bengals, Inc. 一 The assumption of risk permits a certain degree of violence in sports that are designed to involve it, such as professional football, but it is possible for conduct to go beyond those norms and thus give rise to tort liability.
Mohr v. Williams 一 An operation performed skillfully and successfully but without the plaintiff’s consent is wrongful if no facts arise to justify action without express consent. Intent for assault and battery in a civil action does not require that the defendant intended to injure or was negligent. It is sufficient that the act was unlawful.
Surocco v. Geary 一 One acting in good faith who destroys another party’s property under the privilege of public necessity to save the greater interests of society cannot be held personally liable.
Vincent v. Lake Erie Transp. Co. 一 If one deliberately acts to protect their own interests under the privilege of private necessity and in the process damages another party’s interests, they are liable for the damage inflicted.
Negligence and Standards of Care
One may be held liable for their actions regardless of intent under the theory of negligence. The elements of negligence are duty, breach, causation, and damages. A duty is an obligation to conform to a certain standard of conduct for the protection of others. A breach is a failure to conform to that standard. Causation means that a reasonably close relationship exists between the conduct and the resulting injury and the element of damages requires that there was some injury.
Lubitz v. Wells 一 A golf club is not so obviously and intrinsically dangerous that it would be negligent to leave it lying in the yard, where one knows that children might play with it and cause injuries.
Pipher v. Parsell 一 A driver has a reasonable duty to protect their passengers. Drivers may breach their duty of care when they fail to prevent passengers from acting in a foreseeable way that hinders the safe operation of the vehicle.
U.S. v. Carroll Towing Co. 一 To determine whether there is a duty of care, courts should evaluate whether the burden of that party in taking reasonable precautions is outweighed by the probability of the harm multiplied by the magnitude of that harm.
Vaughan v. Menlove 一 All individuals owe a duty of care to act in the way in which a reasonably prudent person would act under similar circumstances.
Roberts v. State of Louisiana 一 A person with a disability, such as a blind person, is held to the same standard of care as a reasonable person with the same disability.
Robinson v. Lindsay 一 An adult standard of care applies to a child who is engaging in an inherently dangerous activity, most often the use of a motor vehicle.
Negligence Per Se
A duty of care may be established by a statute or administrative regulation, or a court’s adoption of a standard supplied by a statute or administrative regulation. One may escape liability for negligence per se with a legally substantial justification or excuse for not complying with the standard imposed by an enactment or regulation, but these excuses are limited.
Osborne v. McMasters 一 If one violates a duty imposed by a statute designed to protect the class of persons to which the injured individual belonged from the experienced injury, the violation is evidence of negligence per se.
Perry v. S.N. and S.N. 一 To establish negligence per se, a plaintiff must belong to the class of persons whom the statute was intended to protect, and their injury must be of the type that the statute was designed to prevent. However, the existence of an underlying common-law duty should be considered before applying negligence per se.
Martin v. Herzog 一 A failure to act in accordance with a duty imposed by a statute may be negligence per se and can be considered prima facie evidence of negligence. Jurors do not have discretion to relax a duty owed under a statute.
Causation is an essential element of negligence and requires that a plaintiff prove that the defendant’s actions were the cause of their injury. Tortious conduct is the cause-in-fact of the harm when the harm would not have happened but for the tortious conduct. Causation also involves an assessment of proximate cause, generally meaning that the tortious conduct is sufficiently related to the injury to impose liability.
Reynolds v. Texas & Pac. Ry. Co. 一 If the defendant’s negligence greatly multiplies the probability of harm to the plaintiff and is of a character naturally leading to its occurrence, the mere possibility that the plaintiff’s injury might have happened without the defendant’s negligence is not enough to break the chain of cause and effect.
Gentry v. Hereford Ranch, Inc. 一 To establish causation, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant’s conduct was a cause-in-fact of the plaintiff’s injuries. One’s conduct is a cause-in-fact of an event if the event would not have occurred but for that conduct. Mere suspicion or speculation is not enough to establish cause-in-fact.
Kramer Service, Inc. v. Wilkins 一 When the cause of an injury is beyond the experience and observations of a layperson, undisputed expert testimony is conclusive in determining whether the link between the alleged negligence and the injury is sufficient to establish liability.
Proximate Cause and Foreseeability
Tortious conduct is the proximate cause of harm when the harm resulted from the risks that made the conduct tortious. Liability is generally limited to injuries that are reasonably foreseeable, but the scope of liability may vary. The inexact science of limiting the scope of liability is addressed by the dissent in Palsgraf.
Palsgraf v. Long Island R.R. Co. (Dissent) 一 When there is an unreasonable act that may affect some right, there is negligence. A negligent actor may be liable for harm caused to someone outside the group of people whom one would reasonably expect to be injured, so long as the negligent actor’s act was the proximate cause of the harm. Determining proximate cause may involve asking whether there was a natural and continuous sequence between cause and effect, whether the cause was a substantial factor in producing the effect, whether there was a direct connection between the cause and the effect without too many intervening causes, whether the effect of cause on result was not too attenuated, whether the cause was likely to produce the result in the usual judgment of mankind, whether the result was foreseeable, and whether the result was too remote from the cause in time and space.
Cohen v. Petty 一 If the uncontested evidence shows that the plaintiff’s injury resulted from a sudden, unforeseeable illness that made it impossible for the defendant to control the vehicle, there is no negligence.
Res Ipsa Loquitur
The doctrine of res ipsa loquitur (“the thing speaks for itself”) states that causation in a negligence claim may be inferred when the event is of a kind that ordinarily does not occur without negligence, and the instrumentality causing the injuries was under the exclusive control of the defendant.
Byrne v. Boadle 一 The fact that a certain event occurs may be enough to establish causation in a negligence claim if such an event does not normally occur without negligence. The plaintiff may prevail even if the defendant introduces other possible causes of the harm, so long as the fact finder is convinced that the likely cause was negligence.
McDougald v. Perry 一 Res ipsa loquitur may apply in rare instances when the event itself is evidence enough to infer negligence.
Escola v. Coca Cola Bottling Co. of Fresno 一 Res ipsa loquitur only applies when the defendant had exclusive control of the thing causing injury and the nature of the accident is such that it would not ordinarily happen without negligence.
It is possible that multiple causes of harm exist, each of which alone would have been sufficient to cause the injury. Each cause may be regarded as a cause-in-fact of a plaintiff’s injury.
Hill v. Edmonds 一 When separate acts of negligence combine to directly produce a single injury, each tortfeasor is responsible for the entire result, even if just one tortfeasor’s act might not have caused the harm.
Anderson v. Minneapolis, S.P. & S.S.M.R. Co. 一 When two negligent acts unite to injure the plaintiff, a defendant will be liable if their actions materially or substantially contributed to the injury, even if another party’s negligent act would have been sufficient to cause the injury.
Summers v. Tice 一 If two independent actors are both negligent, and either of them could have caused the plaintiff’s injury, but it is impossible to determine whose conduct actually caused the harm, they must both be liable unless they can sufficiently absolve themselves. To hold otherwise would allow both negligent actors to escape liability and leave the plaintiff remediless.
Sindell v. Abbott Laboratories 一 If a plaintiff cannot identify the specific individual or entity that caused the harm, and it is unjust to preclude them from recovery, the group of parties responsible more generally for the harm may be liable. Each defendant may escape liability if they can demonstrate that they could not have caused the injury.
Herskovits v. Group Health Cooperative of Puget Sound 一 Causation in a wrongful death action based on medical malpractice does not require that the plaintiff prove that the victim would have been more likely than not to survive if not for the malpractice. A negligent defendant may be held liable for a substantial reduction in the victim’s chance of survival directly caused by the negligence.
Intervening and Superseding Causes
An intervening act is an independent act or a force of nature occurring aside from the defendant’s negligent act. When there is an intervening act, the scope of a defendant’s liability may be limited to harm resulting from the risks that made the defendant’s conduct tortious.
Yun v. Ford Motor Co. 一 An intervening and superseding cause, which is a cause that is unforeseeable or extraordinary, breaks the chain of causation.
Derdiarian v. Felix Contracting Corp. 一 If an intervening act is a normal or foreseeable consequence of the situation created by the defendant’s negligence, it does not break the causal connection. It does not matter that the precise manner of the accident or the exact extent of the injuries was not anticipated, but only that the general risk and character of the injuries were foreseeable. If the intervening act is extraordinary, not foreseeable, or independent or far removed from the defendant’s conduct, it may be a superseding act that severs the causal connection.
Watson v. Kentucky & Indiana Bridge & R.R. Co. 一 An intervening act that is merely unforeseeable does not sever the causal connection, but an intervening act that is so unexpected or extraordinary that the defendant could not or should not have anticipated it will preclude liability.
Fuller v. Preis 一 Suicide is not a superseding cause that precludes liability for negligence.
Damages in Torts
Under the eggshell skull rule, a tortfeasor takes a plaintiff as they are and may be liable for the full extent of the plaintiff’s injuries, including the aggravation of pre-existing conditions.
Bartolone v. Jeckovich 一 A defendant takes a plaintiff as they find them and may be liable for the aggravation of pre-existing conditions.
Jacque v. Steenberg Homes, Inc. 一 Punitive damages may be appropriate in intentional trespass cases even if there are no actual damages. Intentional trespass to land causes actual harm, even if that harm cannot be measured in mere dollars.
One may be liable for injuries directly caused by the tortious conduct of another party if the tortious act was done in concert with the other party.
Bierczynski v. Rogers 一 Participation in a motor vehicle race on a public highway is an act of concurrent negligence imposing liability on each participant for injuries to a non-participant caused by the race, regardless of which participant directly inflicted the injury.
Bundt v. Embro 一 Multiple judgments cannot be satisfied against multiple defendants for the same tort when one judgment has already been satisfied.
Knell v. Feltman 一 Contribution may be enforced between concurrent tortfeasors even if there is not a joint judgment against them, so long as the parties are not intentional wrongdoers.
Slocum v. Donahue 一 Indemnification is appropriate when the indemnitee is derivatively or vicariously liable for the wrongful act of another party. Contribution and indemnity are mutually exclusive remedies.
Bruckman v. Pena 一 A defendant cannot be held liable for a plaintiff’s subsequent injuries, regardless of whether the damages can be apportioned between the two injuries.
In some jurisdictions, a possessor owes a duty of reasonable care to all individuals other than trespassers. Other jurisdictions distinguish between licensees and invitees. A possessor owes a licensee (one who has express or implied permission to be on the property) a duty to protect them from dangers of which the possessor is aware. A possessor owes an invitee (one who is on the land for a materially beneficial purpose of the possessor) a duty to use reasonable care to protect them from both known dangers and those that would be revealed by an inspection of the property.
Carter v. Kinney 一 Generally, a possessor owes a trespasser no duty of care, a licensee a duty to address dangers of which the possessor is aware, and an invitee a duty to exercise reasonable care to protect them against both known dangers and those that would be revealed by an inspection. A social guest is a subclass of licensee. An entrant becomes an invitee when they are invited by the possessor with the expectation of a material benefit from the visit, or when an invitation is extended to the public generally and the individual enters pursuant to the purposes for which the land was opened to the public.
Rowland v. Christian 一 A possessor of land owes a duty to others to manage their property as a reasonable person would, considering the probability of injury to others. A plaintiff’s status as a trespasser, licensee, or invitee may be considered, but it is not determinative.
Jasko v. F.W. Woolworth Co. 一 If the pattern in which one conducts business creates a dangerous condition, proper notice of that continuing condition may be inferred.
Professionals such as lawyers and doctors generally have a duty to exercise as much care as a reasonable person in the same profession would exercise under similar circumstances. The proper standard of care must usually be established by expert testimony, unless the negligence was so grossly apparent that a layperson would recognize it without difficulty.
Hodges v. Carter 一 In a legal malpractice action, there is no liability when an attorney makes a mistake of law or an error of judgment in good faith, assuming that they used as much care as a reasonable attorney would have used in a similar situation.
Boyce v. Brown 一 A physician’s negligence in a medical malpractice action for departing from the proper standard of care must be established by expert medical testimony, unless the negligence is so grossly apparent that a layperson would recognize it without difficulty.
Morrison v. MacNamara 一 The locality rule for measuring a medical professional’s conduct against other members of the same profession in the same locality was intended to protect rural doctors without effective means of transportation and communication or the training and experience necessary to perform to the standard of urban doctors. Medical professionals are held to a national standard of care, rather than a local standard of care, when a community is not isolated from recent advances in the quality of care and the treatment of patients.
A therapist may have a duty of reasonable care to protect an identifiable and foreseeable victim if the therapist has determined that a patient poses a serious risk of specific violence.
Tarasoff v. Regents of Univ. of Cal. 一 One owes a duty of care to all persons who are foreseeably endangered by their conduct, with respect to all risks that make the conduct unreasonably dangerous. One may have a duty to avoid foreseeable harm by reasonably attempting to control the conduct of another person or warn of such conduct when a special relationship exists with the dangerous person or the potential victim, like the relationship between a therapist and their patient.
A social host may have a duty to the public not to create foreseeable, unreasonable risks by serving alcohol to a guest when they know that the guest is intoxicated and will subsequently drive.
Kelly v. Gwinnell 一 A social host has a duty to the public not to create foreseeable, unreasonable risks by serving alcohol to guests who will subsequently drive. A host may be liable for injuries caused by a guest’s negligent driving when the host knew that the guest was intoxicated and would drive.
Injuries to Rescuers
A negligent actor may be liable for injuries sustained by a rescuer because rescue is a foreseeable consequence of negligence.
McCoy v. American Suzuki Motor Corp. 一 An injured rescuer may sue the party who caused the danger requiring the rescue, but they must show that the defendant’s wrongdoing proximately caused their injuries. A rescuer does not assume the risk so long as they do not act rashly or recklessly.
Wagner v. International Ry. Co. 一 Danger invites rescue, making rescue a foreseeable act. A tortfeasor may be liable for injuries sustained from a rescuer’s reasonable rescue attempt.
Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress
There is no general duty to avoid negligently inflicting emotional distress, but there may be an exception if the emotional harm is connected to a physical harm or when one is closely related to a victim, was present at the scene, was aware that the victim was being injured, and suffered emotional distress beyond that which would be anticipated in a disinterested person.
Daley v. LaCroix 一 One may allege negligent infliction of emotional distress when a definite and objective physical injury is produced as a result of emotional distress proximately caused by the defendant’s negligence, regardless of whether there was a physical impact at the time of the mental shock. A defendant will not be liable for a hypersensitive mental disturbance unless the defendant had specific knowledge of the plaintiff’s unusual sensitivity.
Thing v. La Chusa 一 To recover damages for negligent infliction of emotional distress, one must be closely related to the victim, have been physically present at the scene of the injury-producing event, have been aware that it was causing an injury to the victim, and as a result suffer emotional distress beyond that which would be anticipated in a disinterested witness.
Defenses to Negligence
Common defenses to negligence include comparative fault, assumption of risk, and statutes of limitations. Under the comparative fault rule, responsibility is allocated between actors based on their respective degrees of fault. Under modified comparative fault, a negligent plaintiff may not recover damages if their negligence was equal to or greater than the defendant’s. A plaintiff may be barred from recovery if they had assumed the risk that caused their injuries. Statutes of limitations also bar claims after a certain period of time.
McIntyre v. Balentine 一 Under modified comparative fault, a negligent plaintiff may recover damages so long as their negligence remains less than the defendant’s, but their recovery will be reduced in proportion to their own negligence.
Rush v. Commercial Realty Co. 一 The defense of implied assumption of risk only applies when the plaintiff voluntarily encounters a known risk. The voluntary nature of the assumption of risk cannot be assumed when no reasonable alternative existed.
Blackburn v. Dorta 一 Implied assumption of risk is not an affirmative defense separate and apart from contributory negligence. Therefore, the principles of comparative negligence apply when the defense of implied assumption of risk is asserted.
Teeters v. Currey 一 Under the discovery doctrine, a statute of limitations in a medical malpractice action for the negligent performance of a surgical procedure does not begin to run until the plaintiff discovers or reasonably should discover the injury.
This outline has been compiled by the Justia team for solely educational purposes and should not be treated as an independent source of legal authority or a summary of the current state of the law. Students should use this outline as a supplement rather than a substitute for course-specific outlines.