Tortious Act

Tortious Act
Tortious Act
Quick Summary of Tortious Act

A tortious act occurs when an individual’s actions result in harm to another person, making them legally accountable for the damage caused. Whether intentional or accidental, the act still inflicts harm. It is similar to accidentally breaking a friend’s toy and needing to apologize and rectify the situation. Similarly, someone who commits a tortious act must take responsibility and make amends with the injured party.

What is the dictionary definition of Tortious Act?
Dictionary Definition of Tortious Act

A tortious act refers to a deliberate action that leads to harm or injury to another individual, thereby making the person responsible under the principles of tort law. For instance, this includes scenarios such as a driver running a red light and causing a car accident, an employer failing to provide a safe working environment resulting in an employee’s injury, or a doctor performing surgery incorrectly and causing harm to the patient. These examples effectively demonstrate how a tortious act involves a voluntary action that brings about harm or injury to another person. In each case, the individual responsible (driver, employer, or doctor) had control over their actions and consciously chose to act in a manner that caused harm to someone else.

Full Definition Of Tortious Act

A tortious act is a wrongful act or an infringement of a right (other than under contract) leading to civil legal liability. In the United Kingdom, torts are a component of the civil law system and serve to offer remedies to people who have suffered harm as a result of another’s wrongdoing. This overview explores the various aspects of tortious acts, including their definition, types, elements, defences, and remedies.

Definition of Tortious Act

A tortious act occurs when an individual’s actions or omissions cause harm or loss to another, resulting in legal liability. Unlike criminal acts, which are offences against the state, torts are wrongs against individuals or entities and are addressed through civil litigation. The primary aim of tort law is to compensate the victim for losses suffered rather than punish the wrongdoer.

Types of Tortious Acts

Torts can be broadly categorised into three main types: intentional torts, negligent torts, and strict liability torts. Each category addresses different kinds of wrongful acts and requires different legal considerations.

  1. Intentional torts: These occur when an individual deliberately performs an act that causes harm to another. Common intentional torts include:
    • Assault and Battery: Assault is an act that creates an apprehension of imminent harmful or offensive contact, while battery involves actual physical contact.
    • False imprisonment is the unlawful restraint of an individual’s freedom of movement.
    • Trespass: unauthorised entry onto another person’s property.
    • Defamation: making false statements that harm another’s reputation, including libel (written) and slander (spoken).
    • Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress: Conduct that is so outrageous that it causes severe emotional distress to another person.
  2. Negligent torts: These arise when an individual fails to exercise reasonable care, resulting in harm to another. Key examples include:
    • Personal injury: accidents leading to physical harm, such as car accidents or slips and falls.
    • Medical Malpractice: Healthcare professionals fail to provide the standard of care, resulting in patient harm.
    • Professional Negligence: Professionals, such as accountants or solicitors, fail to perform their duties with the requisite level of care and skill.
    • Product Liability: Manufacturers produce defective products that cause injury or damage.
  3. Strict Liability Torts: These involve inherently dangerous activities, where liability is imposed without the need to prove negligence or intent. Examples include:
    • Abnormally Dangerous Activities: Activities such as using explosives or keeping wild animals.
    • Defective Products: There are certain product liability cases where a product is inherently dangerous and harm occurs despite the manufacturer’s precautions.

Elements of a Tortious Act

To establish a tortious act, certain elements must be proven, depending on the type of tort. Generally, these elements include:

  1. Duty of Care: The defendant owed a duty of care to the plaintiff. This means that the defendant was expected to act in a certain way towards the plaintiff.
  2. Breach of Duty: The defendant breached this duty by acting or failing to act in a certain manner.
  3. Causation: There must be a causal link between the defendant’s breach of duty and the harm suffered by the plaintiff. This includes:
    • Actual Cause (Causation in Fact): The harm would not have occurred ‘but for’ the defendant’s actions.
    • Proximate Cause (Legal Causation): The harm was a foreseeable result of the defendant’s actions.
  4. Damages: The plaintiff suffered actual harm or loss as a result of the defendant’s actions. This can include physical injury, property damage, financial loss, or emotional distress.

Defences to Tortious Acts

Several defences can be raised against claims of tortious acts, which, if successful, can limit or negate liability. Common defences include:

  1. Consent: The plaintiff consented to the act that resulted in harm, such as participating in a contact sport where physical contact is expected.
  2. Self-Defence: The defendant acted in self-defence or defence of others, using reasonable force to prevent harm.
  3. Necessity: The defendant’s actions were necessary to prevent greater harm, such as trespassing on someone’s property to avoid an immediate danger.
  4. Contributory Negligence: The plaintiff’s negligence contributed to the harm suffered, potentially reducing the defendant’s liability.
  5. Comparative Negligence: Similar to contributory negligence, the liability is apportioned based on the degree of fault of each party.
  6. Statute of Limitations: The claim is barred because it was not filed within the legally prescribed time limit.
  7. Illegality: The plaintiff cannot claim for damages if they were involved in illegal activities at the time of the harm.

Remedies for Tortious Acts

The primary remedy for tortious acts is the award of damages, intended to compensate the victim for their losses. Several types of damages can be awarded:

  • Compensatory Damages: These aim to restore the plaintiff to the position they were in before the tort occurred. They include:
    • Special Damages: quantifiable monetary losses, such as medical expenses, lost earnings, and property damage.
    • General Damages: non-monetary losses, such as pain and suffering, emotional distress, and loss of amenity.
  • Nominal Damages: A small sum awarded when the plaintiff’s rights have been violated but no substantial harm has occurred.
  • Punitive Damages: Also known as exemplary damages, these are awarded to punish the defendant for particularly egregious conduct and to deter similar behaviour in the future. They are not commonly awarded in the UK.
  • Injunctions are court orders requiring the defendant to do or refrain from doing a specific act. Injunctions can be temporary (interim) or permanent, depending on the circumstances of the case.
  • Restitution: requiring the defendant to restore the plaintiff to the position they were in before the tort, often by returning property or paying for its value.

Case Law and Examples

Significant landmark cases that shed light on the application of legal principles and the development of judicial thinking have shaped the development of tort law in the UK.

  • Donoghue v. Stevenson (1932): This seminal case established the modern law of negligence, introducing the ‘neighbour principle’. Mrs Donoghue became ill after consuming ginger beer containing a decomposed snail, leading to the recognition that manufacturers owe a duty of care to consumers.
  • Caparo Industries plc v. Dickman (1990): This case refined the duty of care concept, introducing a three-part test for establishing negligence: foreseeability of harm, proximity of relationship, and whether it is fair, just, and reasonable to impose a duty.
  • Bolam v. Friern Hospital Management Committee (1957): This case set the standard for medical negligence, known as the ‘Bolam test’. According to this theory, a medical professional is not negligent if they follow a procedure that a responsible body of medical opinion has approved as appropriate.
  • Hedley Byrne & Co. Ltd. v Heller & Partners Ltd. (1964): This case established the principle of negligent misstatement, where a party can be liable for providing careless advice that leads to financial loss.
  • Rylands v. Fletcher (1868): This case laid down the principle of strict liability for hazardous activities, holding that a person who brings something onto their land that is likely to cause harm if it escapes is liable for any resulting damage.

Modern Developments and Challenges

Tort law continually evolves to address new challenges and societal changes. Modern developments include:

  • Expansion of Duty of Care: Courts have expanded the scope of duty of care to include areas such as psychiatric injury, economic loss, and environmental damage. This reflects a broader understanding of harm and the need for protection.
  • Human Rights Impact: The Human Rights Act 1998 has influenced tort law, particularly in cases involving privacy, freedom of expression, and state liability. Tort principles must now be interpreted in light of human rights considerations.
  • Technological Advances: The rise of digital technology and social media presents new challenges, including issues of data protection, cyberbullying, and online defamation. Tort law must adapt to these emerging areas of harm.
  • Group Litigation: The UK has seen an increase in group litigation (class actions) for tortious acts affecting large numbers of people, such as product liability cases and environmental disasters. This trend necessitates procedural adaptations to manage complex cases effectively.
  • Economic and Political Factors: Economic pressures and political changes, such as Brexit, can impact tort law by influencing legislative priorities, regulatory frameworks, and judicial approaches to liability and compensation.


A tortious act represents a significant area of civil law aimed at providing remedies for wrongful acts that cause harm to individuals or entities. Understanding the types of torts, the elements required to establish liability, the available defences, and the remedies awarded are crucial for navigating this complex legal landscape. Tort law continues to evolve, responding to societal changes, technological advancements, and human rights considerations. By addressing wrongful acts and compensating victims, tort law plays a vital role in maintaining justice and fairness within society.

Tortious Act FAQ'S

A tortious act refers to a wrongful act or omission that causes harm or injury to another person, leading to legal liability. It can include actions such as negligence, defamation, assault, or trespassing.

While both involve wrongful behaviour, a tortious act is a civil wrong that primarily seeks compensation for the injured party, whereas a criminal act is a violation of criminal law and can result in punishment by the state.

To establish a tortious act, four elements must generally be proven: duty of care owed by the defendant to the plaintiff, breach of that duty, causation (the breach caused the harm), and damages (the plaintiff suffered harm or injury).

Yes, under the legal principle of vicarious liability, an employer can be held responsible for the tortious acts of its employees if those acts were committed within the scope of their employment.

The statute of limitations for tort claims varies depending on the jurisdiction and the specific type of tort. It is important to consult with an attorney to determine the applicable time limit for filing a lawsuit.

Yes, in many cases, intent is not a necessary element to establish liability for a tortious act. Negligence, for example, can lead to liability even if the harm was unintentional.

Yes, a tortious act can be committed against a business entity. For example, if a competitor spreads false information about a company to harm its reputation, it may be considered defamation.

Self-defence is a legal defence that can excuse liability for certain tortious acts, such as assault or battery, if the person reasonably believed they were in imminent danger and used reasonable force to protect themselves.

Yes, a tortious act can lead to both criminal charges and a civil lawsuit. The criminal charges are brought by the state to punish the wrongdoer, while the civil lawsuit is initiated by the injured party seeking compensation for their damages.

Mental incapacity can be a defence to liability for a tortious act if it can be proven that the person lacked the mental capacity to understand the consequences of their actions. However, this defence may not apply in all situations and would depend on the specific circumstances and applicable laws.

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This site contains general legal information but does not constitute professional legal advice for your particular situation. Persuing this glossary does not create an attorney-client or legal adviser relationship. If you have specific questions, please consult a qualified attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.

This glossary post was last updated: 8th June 2024.

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