What Is an Intentional Tort?

When someone else’s purposeful misconduct causes you harm, you might have a personal injury claim.

Updated by , Attorney University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law
Updated 12/20/2022

Most personal injury claims involve negligence, which is just a legal term for careless behavior. But this article focuses on intentional torts, where the wrongdoer means to do some act or to cause harm. We'll find out how the two differ, explain several kinds of intentional torts, and review the kinds of damages you can collect in an intentional tort case.

What's the Difference Between Negligence and Intentional Torts?

A tort is a wrongful act that causes someone personal injury or harms another person's property. A tort claim is a civil lawsuit brought to collect damages for personal injuries or property losses.

The difference between negligence and an intentional tort is the state of mind of the "tortfeasor," the person who commits the act. An intentional tort requires that the tortfeasor must have acted with a purpose—either to do the act or to bring about an injury to a person or some property.

Negligence simply means that the tortfeasor did not act as carefully as the law requires. Intent is irrelevant, so lack of intent isn't a defense to a negligence claim.

How Do I Know If Something Is an Intentional Tort?

Let's look at an example. Judy's pickup truck rear-ended Jane's car at a traffic light. If Judy simply wasn't paying attention to traffic, then Judy was negligent. All drivers have a legal duty to keep a careful lookout for other cars. Judy violated that duty and hit Jane's car. It's a textbook case of negligence.

Now, suppose that Jane and Judy were coworkers. Judy was upset because Jane got a big promotion that Judy thought should be hers. In a fit of anger, Judy decided to get even by slamming her pickup into Jane's car. Judy committed an intentional tort (called a "battery," described below) by acting with the purpose to hit Jane's car and damage it, or maybe to hurt Jane.

What's the Difference Between an Intentional Tort and a Crime?

A tort claim isn't the same thing as a criminal case. But as we'll see, the same conduct can be both a tort and a crime.

How an Intentional Tort Case Works

If you've been hurt (or your property has been damaged) because of an intentional tort, you can file a civil lawsuit—a legal claim brought by a plaintiff against a defendant—to recover damages. Most civil lawsuits settle, and that's true for intentional tort claims as well.

It's difficult to find useful settlement information on the web. Keep in mind that any settlement data you find has been voluntarily reported, usually by lawyers representing plaintiffs. Lawyers like to report big settlements with impressive numbers. Small settlements—which are likely to be more representative of typical settlement values—often go unmentioned.

Some cases go to trial before a judge or jury. If the defendant is found legally at fault for the plaintiff's injury or property damage, the court enters a judgment ordering the defendant to pay damages to the plaintiff. If you'd like to learn more about how a civil lawsuit works, check out "Steps in a Personal Injury Lawsuit."

How a Criminal Case Works

A criminal case is brought by the government against a person (the defendant) who's accused of violating a criminal statute. The goals of a criminal prosecution are to protect the public and to punish people for their crimes. The government isn't interested in collecting damages, though a guilty criminal defendant might be fined as a punishment, or ordered to pay restitution to the crime victims.

Both a Tort and a Crime

The same misconduct can be both a tort and a crime. Battery is a good example. A battery happens when a defendant intentionally causes harmful or offensive physical contact with another person. Every state makes battery a crime, and every state's tort law recognizes the intentional tort of battery.

Damages In an Intentional Tort Case

If an intentional tort causes physical or emotional injuries, the plaintiff can collect the same kinds of damages as in any other personal injury case. The nature and extent of the plaintiff's injuries drive the value of the case. Different rules apply, though, if an intentional tort causes the loss of, or damage to, the plaintiff's property. In particularly extreme cases, the plaintiff might be awarded punitive damages.

Physical or Emotional Injuries

A person who suffers physical or emotional injuries because of an intentional tort can recover both economic and noneconomic damages.

Economic (Special) Damages

Economic damages sometimes are called "special" damages. They compensate the plaintiff for losses that are easy to put in dollars. Things like medical expenses, lost wages, pharmacy charges, and the costs of medical equipment are typical examples.

Noneconomic (General) Damages

Noneconomic damages, sometimes called "general" damages, compensate the plaintiff for injuries that are harder to quantify. Things like pain and suffering, emotional distress, and loss of enjoyment of life are common examples. How do you put a value on these losses?

Most insurance adjusters and lawyers use a multiplier to value noneconomic damages. The plaintiff's medical expenses are multiplied by a factor of between 1 and 5, in a usual case, to arrive at a starting value. A multiplier greater than 5—perhaps much greater—might be used if the facts of the case are extreme or the plaintiff's injuries are catastrophic.

Damage to Plaintiff's Property

If the only damage is to the plaintiff's property, then the damage calculations are different. The intentional tort of conversion, discussed below, is a good example. Conversion happens when one person takes or exercises control over another person's personal property.

In a conversion lawsuit, a successful plaintiff can ask the court either to order that the property be returned, or order the defendant to pay the fair market value of the property. If the property already has been returned, the plaintiff is entitled to compensation for loss of use of the property during the time it was converted. Loss of use might be measured by the fair rental value of similar property.

Punitive Damages

In rare circumstances, a successful plaintiff might be awarded punitive damages. Punitive damages are meant to punish a wrongdoer and deter others from behaving in a similar way. They're not intended to compensate a plaintiff for particular injuries.

Whether punitive damages are available and if so, under what circumstances, is a matter of state law. Some states require the plaintiff to prove malice, a more demanding standard.

Types of Intentional Torts

The law recognizes many kinds of intentional torts. Here, we'll cover some of the most common, including:

  • assault and battery
  • conversion
  • defamation
  • false imprisonment
  • fraud, and
  • intentional infliction of emotional distress

Assault and Battery

Assault and battery are two separate but often related intentional torts. An assault is an intentional act that puts another person in reasonable fear of immediate harmful or offensive physical contact. Battery is the completion of an assault—it's an intentional act that causes harmful or offensive physical contact with another person.

Conversion

If someone steals another person's property, that's a crime. The tort law counterpart to that crime is called conversion. Conversion happens when a person intentionally takes personal property or exercises control over it. Note that only personal property, not real estate, can be converted.

Returning the property isn't a defense to a conversion claim. The rightful owner is allowed to collect damages for whatever period of time the property was wrongfully withheld. If the property hasn't been returned, the plaintiff can ask the court to order its return or order that the defendant pay its fair market value.

Defamation

Defamation is a false statement that harms another person's character or reputation. Libel and slander are types of defamation. If a defamatory statement is written, it's called libel. If the statement is spoken, it's slander.

Truth, as the saying goes, is a defense to a defamation claim because only false statements can be defamatory. And as a rule, most opinions aren't defamatory because they can't be proven false. There are other defenses to defamation claims, too.

Here's where things get a bit tricky. Defamation is an intentional tort only if the defamatory statement is made about a public figure, like a politician, a celebrity, or a professional athlete. A public figure must prove that the defendant made a defamatory statement knowing that it was false, or with reckless disregard for whether it was true or false.

A plaintiff who isn't a public figure can win by showing that the defendant made a defamatory statement negligently.

False Imprisonment

False imprisonment happens when a person is intentionally confined against their will and without legal authority. Actual force need not be used. A threat of force or other harm can suffice. In each case, the question is whether a reasonable person would have believed they were being confined.

Not every physical confinement amounts to false imprisonment. In most states, for example, a business is allowed to detain suspected shoplifters for a reasonable period to investigate whether a theft has happened.

Consent is another defense to a false imprisonment claim. Because the confinement must be involuntary, a person who chooses to remain somewhere hasn't been falsely imprisoned.

Fraud

Fraud is a knowing and intentional misrepresentation of a material fact. The misrepresentation must be made with the intent that the person hearing it will rely on it, and that person must actually rely on it to their harm.

Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress

Intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED) is sometimes called the tort of "outrage." IIED happens when a defendant's intentionally extreme and outrageous behavior causes the plaintiff to suffer severe emotional distress. The conduct must be so outrageous that it goes beyond all bounds of decency or is intolerable in a civilized society. Ordinary insults or rude behavior won't suffice.

The question in each case is whether a reasonable person of ordinary sensitivity would find the behavior to be extreme, outrageous, or completely intolerable. If the defendant's behavior was merely careless but not intentional, the legal claim is called negligent infliction of emotional distress.

Other Kinds of Intentional Torts

There are many other intentional torts, in addition to those we've discussed. For example, invasion of privacy covers intentional and unjustified intrusions into a person's private affairs. Trespass compensates a property owner when someone enters or remains on their property without permission. An experienced personal injury lawyer can tell you if you've got a viable intentional tort claim.

Next Steps in Your Intentional Tort Case

If you've got a simple intentional tort case with minor injuries, you might be able to negotiate a settlement without a lawyer's help. If your case involves difficult facts, complex legal issues, or significant injuries, or if you just don't think you're up to the task of reaching a settlement on your own, you should speak to an attorney.

If you've been harmed by someone's deliberate misconduct and you need help with your intentional tort claim, hire an experienced personal injury attorney. You can use the resources on this page to help you find an attorney near you.

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