What is an Intentional Tort?

A purposeful act can give rise to a personal injury claim, but proving intent can be tricky.

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Many civil lawsuits involve torts. A tort is an act that is committed by one party and ends up causing harm to another. That harm can be in the form of a physical injury, damage to property, or even damage to reputation or diminution in the value of something. Most torts are the result of negligence -- which can be broadly defined as a careless act. But there is another subsection of tort law, which covers intentional torts. What is an intentional tort? That's what we'll cover in this article.

Negligence vs. Intent

Intentional torts carry an element of intent that most other torts do not. To commit an intentional tort, it follows that you must do something on purpose. This is in sharp contrast to “regular” torts, that don’t focus on intent at all.

Whether the tort is intentional depends solely upon the mindset of the person committing the tort (sometimes called the "tortfeasor" in legalese). The state of mind of the tortfeasor determines the tort.

For example, a car accident is just that -- an accident. If neither party intended to hit the other, the case would be one of simple negligence. The offending driver had a duty not to drive his vehicle in an unsafe manner; he breached that duty by running into you, which caused you to sustain injuries and property damages. All four elements of a regular tort claim are met. However, if the person that hit you intended to strike your car and cause you bodily harm, he has committed the intentional tort of battery. The exact same accident with the exact same injuries has now become an intentional tort based upon the mindset of the tortfeasor.

The difference between negligence and intent is subtle, but it's also very important to both plaintiffs and defendants intentional tort cases. If a defendant can prove that he or she did not intend to commit the act that caused harm, they may be able to avoid liability. In a regular negligence case, intent is irrelevant -- and so lack of intent is not a valid defense.

Learn more about Proving Fault in a Personal Injury Case.

Types of Intentional Torts

There are several common types of intentional torts. Fraud, misrepresentation, slander, libel and false imprisonment are all usually considered intentional torts. So, too are assault and battery and false imprisonment, and sometimes a wrongful death claim can arise from the commission of an intentional tort.

Fraud occurs when someone commits an intentional, deceptive act to either benefit personally or to damage another party.

Slander and libel involve intentionally making a false statement that ends up damaging the reputation of another. Slander involves verbal statements, while libel deals with published written statements. (Note: slander and libel, which are different types of defamation, are sometimes referred to as "quasi-intentional" torts because it isn't always necessary to establish the mindset of the defendant in these kinds of claims.)  

False imprisonment occurs when one party intentionally restricts the freedom of another.

Assault, battery and wrongful death are closely related. An assault is an intentional act that places another person in apprehension of harm, whether or not harm actually occurs. Raising your fist to another person in anger -- even if you don’t throw a punch -- may be an example of assault, as long as the other person actually believes that they are in danger of being hit. Battery is the next step. You’ve committed battery if you throw and connect with the punch. Battery is defined as harmful or offensive contact with the body of another. Assault and battery are often grouped together.

Wrongful death suits arise when one party claims that the negligent or intentional actions of another caused injuries resulting in death.

Assault, battery and wrongful death are all civil actions, but like many intentional torts, they may also be consideredcrimes depending upon the laws of your jurisdiction.

Intentional Torts vs. Crimes

Many intentional torts are also crimes. The difference between the two is subtle but very important. A tort --intentional or otherwise -- can result in a civil suit. This is a lawsuit brought by one private citizen against another. The loser of a civil suit may be found “liable,” and can be subject to a judgment ordering the payment of monetary damages to the prevailing party. Even wrongful death or battery cases involve monetary damages.

Crimes, on the other hand, are very different. Criminal proceedings are brought by the state (meaning the government, not just a particular state) against a party accused of violating a criminal statute. Criminal cases are not about damages. They are about protecting the public welfare and punishing the guilty for their transgressions.

Battery is a prime example of an act that is often both an intentional tort and a crime. State and federal law classifies battery as a crime. A party accused of battery can stand trial, and if a jury of their peers finds that all the elements of criminal battery have been met, and the person is guilty of battery beyond a reasonable doubt, incarceration can occur. Regardless of the outcome of criminal proceedings, the battered party may file a civil suit seeking monetary damages from the accused.

One of the most famous illustrations of an intentional tort that is also a crime is the OJ Simpson trial. OJ Simpson was famously found not guilty of murder. However, subsequent to criminal proceedings, the families of the victims sued Simpson in civil court for wrongful death. Civil trials have a lower burden of proof than criminal trials, and as a result Simpson was held liable for the victims’ deaths and was ordered to pay millions of dollars in damages to their families.

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