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Intentional vs. Negligent Torts

When you are injured by another person, they may have committed a civil wrong. The harmful conduct generally falls within a broad classification called “tort law." A tort is a wrongful act that injures another person or interferes with their property. Torts can either be:

  1. Intentional torts (performed purposefully)
  2. Negligent torts (caused by a lack of reasonable care)

To illustrate these differences, let's look at two scenarios.

  • 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.
  • 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.

In a personal injury case, the tort claims process and the damages available vary. They will 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 negligence claims. 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.

Examples of negligence cases include:

  • Slips and falls caused by unreasonably maintained premises, such as wet floors
  • Property damage caused by carelessness, such as car accidents caused by reckless driving
  • Medical negligence involving doctors that fail to take reasonable precautions to prevent harm to their patients (but a doctor's knowingly bad behavior may also be an intentional act of medical malpractice)
  • Wrongful death cases, which usually involve negligence that leads to the death of a victim

Four things jointly determine negligence in a personal injury lawsuit. A negligence lawsuit will succeed only if the plaintiff meets their burden of proof. This means their civil lawsuit proves all four of the following elements by a preponderance of the evidence:

  1. 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.
  2. 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 ordinarily prudent person.
  3. Causation: The defendant caused the plaintiff's loss. The breach must be the legal cause of harm suffered by the plaintiff. It is both the actual cause and the proximate cause. Actual cause means that, but for the breach, the plaintiff would not have suffered an injury. Proximate cause exists when the type and extent of the injuries suffered were reasonably related to the breach.
  4. Plaintiff suffered damages: The injured party 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.

The preponderance of evidence standard in a legal action means that the plaintiff must prove their civil lawsuit with greater than 50% certainty. This means the facts and elements alleged are more likely than not to have occurred. This is a much lower burden than criminal cases involving criminal charges, which require proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

Intentional Torts

Intentional tort cases, on the other hand, occur when a person intentionally acts in a certain way that leads to another person's injury. There are several examples of intentional torts recognized by most states, including:

  • Assault: An attempted battery or threatening injury without the necessary occurrence of battery
  • 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 (personal property). In either case, trespass means using the property without the permission of the owner
  • False imprisonment: The unlawful restraint of a person against their will by someone without legal authority or justification
  • Intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED): Intentionally or recklessly causing severe emotional distress. This involves outrageous conduct, such as threatening someone with severe harm
  • Defamation: Harming the reputation of another person through libel (written) or slander (spoken) communications

Remember the disclaimer that intentional tort claims must, by definition, involve intentional actions. If the element of intent is missing, a civil lawsuit may need to be tried under negligence principles.

Differences in Available Damages

Tort cases like car accidents are heard in civil proceedings. This legal process is very different from a criminal proceeding. A civil case seeks monetary compensation for the victims of harmful acts rather than criminally punishing wrongdoers. The type of tort 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 and medical bills
  • Lost wages
  • Pain and suffering

Intentional torts can allow for punitive damages since society wishes to deter and punish people 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
  • Punitive damages

Compensatory damages are designed to return the plaintiff to the position they were in before injury 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 by a Personal Injury Attorney

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.

You can obtain a personal injury law claim review from an experienced personal injury attorney. A personal injury lawyer can discuss the elements of your claim and give you a head start on the path to recovery.

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