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Intentional vs. Negligent Torts

When you are injured by another person, the harmful conduct generally falls within a broad legal classification called torts. A tort is a wrongful act that injures another person or interferes with their property. Torts can either be intentional (performed purposefully) or negligent (caused by a lack of reasonable care). To illustrate these differences, let's look at two scenarios.

  1. You're sitting at a table arguing with your neighbor. Things escalate and the neighbor throws a glass, hitting you on the shoulder. Your neighbor committed a tort—most likely the intentional tort of battery.
  2. During an argument, your neighbor becomes so irate that he smashes a cup on the floor. The impact causes glass shards to fly up into the air. A shard lodges in your eye. This is also a tort, even though the act wasn't intentional. The act was negligent.

How your claim proceeds and the damages that are available to you depend on the type of tort alleged in your claim. For a better understanding of the differences, let's compare intentional torts and negligence.

The Tort of Negligence

Personal injury claims are frequently based on a negligence claim. Negligence is conduct that falls below a reasonable standard of care for the safety of those around you. A key difference between an intentional tort and a negligence claim is the actor's state of mind. A person who is negligent did not intend to cause harm, but they are still held legally responsible because their careless actions injured someone.

Four things together determine negligence. A negligence lawsuit will succeed only if the plaintiff proves all four of the following elements:

  • Duty of Care: The duty of care requires the use of ordinary care to prevent injury to others. It's determined on a case by case basis. The defendant must owe a legal duty of care to the plaintiff in some form.
  • Breach: The duty of care is breached when the defendant fails to exercise reasonable care. It can be an act or omission that is not compatible with the standard of care exercised by an ordinary prudent person.
  • Defendant Caused the Plaintiff's Loss: The breach must be the legal cause of harm suffered by the plaintiff, that is both the actual cause and the proximate cause. Actual cause exists when but for the breach, the plaintiff would not have suffered an injury. Proximate cause exists when the type and extent of the injuries suffered where reasonably related to the breach.
  • Plaintiff suffered Damages: The plaintiff must suffer damages that can be remedied by monetary compensation. The mere breach of duty is not enough. The damages cannot be contingent or speculative.

Intentional Torts

Intentional torts, on the other hand, occur when a person intentionally acts in a certain way that leads to another person's injury. There are several intentional torts recognized by most states, including battery, assault, false imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, trespass to land, trespass to chattels, and conversion.

  • Assault: An attempted battery or threatening injury without the necessity of battery to actually occur.
  • Battery: Harmful or offensive contact with another person. It may apply even when no actual injury occurs.
  • Conversion: When someone takes your property and "converts" it to their own. In the criminal world, it's known as theft.
  • Trespass: This comes in two forms – trespass to land and trespass to chattel, or personal property. In either case, trespass means using the property without permission of the owner.
  • False Imprisonment: The unlawful restraint of a person against her will by someone without legal authority or justification.

Difference in Available Damages

Tort cases are heard in a civil proceeding. This legal process is very different from a criminal proceeding. A civil case seeks monetary compensation for the victims of harmful acts rather than to criminally punish wrongdoers. The type of tort being alleged will affect the type of damages that are recoverable.

Damages available for intentional torts tend to be broader and more generous than in negligence cases. Typical damages include recovery for medical expenses, lost wages, and/or pain and suffering. Intentional torts can allow for punitive damages, since society wishes to deter its members from intentionally harming each other. Proof of wrongful intent is required to recover.

To recover in a negligence case, the person bringing the claim must have suffered actual harm as a result of the defendant's actions. There are two categories of damages that a plaintiff may be able to recover: compensatory damages and punitive damages. Compensatory damages are designed to return the plaintiff to the position he was in before being injured by the defendant's negligence. Punitive damages may be awarded if the defendant's conduct was reckless, wanton, or malicious.

Have Your Injury Claim Reviewed

When you're injured, it may seem unimportant whether the harm you suffered was caused intentionally or negligently. But when you are seeking compensation, pursuing the proper legal claim can make the difference between success and failure. Receive a claim review from an experienced personal injury attorney to discuss the elements of your claim and get a head start on the path to recovery.

You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help

Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.

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Contact a qualified personal injury attorney to make sure your rights are protected.

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