Q&A with Matt Hopkins
Lawyer defines tort, explains differences between three types
Q: What is a tort?
A: Torts are creatures of “common law” — the part of the law that comes from usages and customs of humanity through antiquity. While legislatures sometimes enact statutes governing torts, this area of law is mostly defined by hundreds of years of court rulings.
Q: What does it mean for us as citizens?
A: Torts are wrongful acts that infringe on someone's rights. They fall into three categories. “Intentional torts” are acts done on purpose, with knowledge that someone will be harmed. “Negligent torts” are acts done without intent to harm, but also without appropriate care. “Strict liability torts” are acts that result in harm regardless of intent or fault, where society places the risk of loss on the actor.
Q: Can you explain the differences in the three?
A: The differences are easily illustrated by the levels of responsibility we place on children at varied ages. I think of intentional torts as the things my 7-year-old daughter knows. Don't hit. Don't take somebody else's stuff. Don't tie your friend to a chair and refuse to let her leave the room. Don't lie. Don't call people names. And, above all, don't go into your brother's room uninvited. The law calls these intentional torts assault, conversion, false imprisonment, defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress and trespass. Negligent torts, by contrast, are the things my 14-year-old son should know. If you play ball in the house, something may break. If you plug the sink with a washrag, the house may flood. If you don't put on a clean shirt, your aroma may make another person sick. Strict liabilities are the damages for which we hold my 18-year-old daughter responsible even though she may have no fault in the matter. Here, when her action — though done with care and without intent to harm — damages another, we decide that the burden of loss is hers to bear as a matter of principle.
Q: Can you sum it up in lay terms?
A: From “you meant to do it” to “you should have known better” to “someone has to pay the price,” tort law provides the rules of engagement. If it seems wrong, it's probably a tort.
PAULA BURKES, BUSINESS WRITER