An intentional tort occurs when one party harms another party through an intentional act. Causing a car accident because you were intoxicated, for example, is different from intentionally running a motorcyclist off the road in a fit of “road rage.” The harm might be physical, but it isn’t always physical. For example, causing damage to someone’s reputation can be an intentional tort.
What Is a “Tort”?
A tort is any harm one party commits against another party (excluding breach of contract), for which the law recognizes the victim’s right to financial compensation.
What Is Meant by “Intentional”?
You could be liable for an intentional tort even if you did not intend the result, as long as you committed the act intentionally. An example of planning an action without intending the injury might be pushing someone off a bridge as an ill-conceived prank.
Intentional Torts Involving Physical Injury
Almost any intentional act of misconduct that causes physical harm qualifies as an intentional tort. Following are the three most common examples.
If you commit an act of intentional misconduct that kills someone, and the death was foreseeable, you could be liable for wrongful death. Not all wrongful deaths are intentional torts (think of a fatal DUI accident, for example), but some are.
You commit the tort of assault when you intentionally place the victim in fear of imminent physical harm. Pointing a gun at someone’s face is assault under most circumstances, but pointing a gun at the back of their head is not assault if the victim did not know a gun was being pointed at them. Pointing a gun at someone who didn’t know the gun wasn’t loaded can still be assault, even if the victim was never in danger.
If pointing a gun at someone’s face is assault, pulling the trigger is battery (if not wrongful death). Cocking your fist at someone might be assault, but punching them is battery. Shooting someone from behind is battery, but it is assault only if the victim was aware of the threat in advance. A victim can sue a defendant for both assault and battery at the same time if circumstances warrant it. Assault and battery are also criminal offenses.
Intentional Torts Not Involving Bodily Injury
Not all intentional torts involve bodily injury. Following are some examples of some intentional torts that don’t involve bodily injury:
- Defamation: This involves injury to someone’s reputation through a false accusation (slander and libel). This tort is a personal injury, even though it is not a physical injury.
- Fraud: Telling a lie to someone that causes them harm because they believe it constitutes fraud. There doesn’t have to be any financial loss involved.
- Trespassing: There are two types of trespassing-–trespass to land and trespass to chattels. Using someone’s car without authorization from the owner (intending to return it later) is trespassing to chattels.
- Conversion: Conversion inclues both theft and the innocent taking of moveable property that you didn’t realize belongs to someone else.. It can be a crime if the taker realized that the item belonged to someone else. Otherwise, it is only an intentional tort.
- False imprisonment: Locking someone in their room or in a closet is false imprisonment. Anyone can commit this offense, not only law enforcement officers.
- Intentional infliction of emotional distress: An example might be a cruel prank where the defendant calls the victim, falsely identifies themself as the county coroner, falsely tells them that their loved one died in a motorcycle accident, and asks the victim to come to the morgue to identify the body.
Intentional torts can cover a broad range of activities, as shown here.
The Burden of Proof: A Critical Difference Between a Crime and a Tort
You might have run into a situation where someone was acquitted of a crime and then held liable for an intentional tort based on the same facts. In the 1990s, for example, NFL legend O.J. Simpson was acquitted of murder and later found liable for the wrongful death of the same two people on the same night. The probable reason for differing results in a criminal trial and a civil lawsuit is the difference in the burden of proof.
The Burden of Proof in a Criminal Prosecution
The burden of proof states which side is responsible for proving the claim and how much evidence they must produce. In a criminal trial, for example, the prosecutor has the burden of proof. They must prove the defendant’s guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This is a demanding standard to meet.
The Burden of Proof in a Civil Lawsuit
In a civil lawsuit, the plaintiff (the party making the accusation) has the burden of proof. The plaintiff must prove their case by a “preponderance of the evidence.” The plaintiff’s evidence, taken as a whole, must outweigh the defense’s evidence, even if only slightly. “Preponderance of the evidence” is a much easier standard to meet than “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Seek an Experienced Lawyer
You might have an intentional tort claim if you suffered harm due to someone else’s intentional misconduct. You will probably need a personal injury lawyer to help you turn that claim into compensation.