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When You Harm Others Intentionally

Authored By: Carl Vinson Institute
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When You Harm Others Intentionally

This document tells you the following:

  • What is a crime?
  • What is a tort?
  • In what kind of court is a criminal case heard?
  • In what kind of court is a tort case heard?
  • What two things must a plaintiff prove in order to win a tort case?
  • Can the same act be both a crime and a tort?
  • What are the two major categories of tort law?
  • What is an intentional tort?
  • What are the seven basic intentional torts?
  • What are the four basic intentional torts which relate to injury to property?
  • What are the defenses to intentional torts claims?

TORTS AND CRIMES
 

TORTS: A tort is a wrongful act that injures or interferes with another's person or property. A tort case is a civil court proceeding. The accused is the "defendant" and the victim is a "plaintiff." The charges are brought by the plaintiff. If the defendant loses, the defendant has to pay damages to the plaintiff.

CRIMES: A crime is a wrongful act that the state or federal government has identified as a crime. A criminal case is a criminal proceeding. The accused is also called a 'defendant". The victim is the person who ahs been hurt or the state of Georgia or other governmental entity. The charges are brought by the government. If the defendant loses, the defendant must serve a sentence. A fine is paid to the government and there is possible restitution to the victim.

Tort cases are heard in civil proceedings. The legal process is quite different from criminal proceedings. The civil process provides a legal means for victims of harmful acts to be compensated for the harm done to them.

In such a legal action, the victim of the tort is usually called the plaintiff. The plaintiff begins a court action against the alleged (or supposed) wrongdoer, usually called the defendant or tortfeasor. 

To win a tort case, the plaintiff must prove two things: (1) the defendant committed the tort and (2) as a result of the tort, the plaintiff or the plaintiff's property was injured. If a plaintiff (like Mrs. Frayle) can prove both, she is entitled to recover money damages from the defendant to compensate for the injury. The defendant (Steve) is liable, which means he is responsible for paying the damages.

The same act may be both a crime and a tort. 

Why are two different legal actions against one wrongful act possible? In effect, criminal law provides a way of punishing people who commit crimes. It acts to protect all citizens from such wrongdoing. Criminal law is not concerned with the individual victim. The law of torts, on the other hand, provides a way to compensate victims of wrongful acts.

In reality, victims of crimes like burglary, rape, and armed robbery rarely sue the wrongdoers, primarily for practical reasons. For instance, if the wrongdoer has no money or property from which to collect, a lawsuit would accomplish nothing.

INTENTIONAL TORTS

An intentional tort is a deliberate act of a person that causes injury to another's person or property. It is this type of conduct that may be a crime and a tort. As you read, consider what legal rights and duties are defined by these intentional torts. For example, in the first tort discussed, you have a legal duty not to harm another through assault. Similarly, you have a legal right to protection from assault. You also have a legal right to payment for damages from the person who harms you.

Intentional Torts: The Person

There are seven basic intentional torts that relate to injury to the person: assault, battery, wrongful death, false imprisonment, defamation, malicious prosecution, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Assault

An assault may be defined as a threat of bodily harm. The person who is threatening must appear able to carry out that threat. An assault may also be an attempt at bodily harm; no physical touching or injury need occur. There need only be an act that creates a reasonable apprehension (or expectation of harm) in the victim.

Battery

Battery is the intentional touching of one person by another without consent (or permission). The law assumes that every person has a right to be free from unwanted, intentional physical contact by other people. For the purpose of this tort, the law also considers that any clothing a person wears or objects that person holds are part of the person.

Every touching of a person, however, is not necessarily battery. In our sometimes crowded world, a certain amount of physical contact between people can't be avoided. Consent is presumed in many situations.

 

Wrongful Death

Wrongful death, as used in the law of intentional torts, may be defined as the death of a human caused by an intentional act of another. A surviving relative of a wrongful death victim has a right to sue the person who committed the tort. The suit would be to recover money equal to the value of the victim's life. Survivors can sue even if the person responsible for the crime has not been prosecuted and found guilty in a criminal case.

The Georgia Supreme Court has held that a patient who was rational and competent to make that decision could choose to end his own life State v. McAfee, 259 Ga. 579, 385 S.E.2d 657 (1989).

How can the value of a life be calculated for a lawsuit? A special scale, called an actuarial table, is used. This table predicts how long a particular person would normally live. Another scale is used to predict how much money the person would have earned.
Lawsuits based on the intentional tort of wrongful death are rare.

Remedies are usually sought through the criminal justice system. Lawsuits based on "wrongful deaths" resulting from unintended actions (or negligence) are more common. An example would be a suit based on a death resulting from an auto accident. Another example would be a malpractice suit in which the careless act of a physician was said to have caused a death.

False Imprisonment

False imprisonment is the unlawful confinement to a bounded area of one person by another for any length of time whereby he or she is deprived of his or her liberty. Actual physical restraint is not necessary for the tort to occur. If the person reasonably believes that he or she is not free to leave, then a false imprisonment has occurred.

Generally, the injury resulting from false imprisonment is emotional (resulting in, for example, humiliation, fear, or embarrassment). However, physical injuries can occur from the restraint itself or when the person attempts to escape. In either case, the wrongdoer would be liable for all such injuries.

Unless their actions are purposefully unlawful, police officers generally have immunity from lawsuits when acting officially.

Defamation

Defamation may be defined as an untruthful statement made by one person to another about a third person that damages the reputation of the third person. Defamation may be written or spoken. Defamation would occur if Carol told her teacher that Larry had copied answers from her tests but he had not. It would occur if a newspaper reported to its readers that an actor was usually drunk at public occasions when the newspaper knew this statement was a lie.

Slander is spoken or oral defamation. Libel is printed defamation. In a case of slander, the victim must be able to show actual damage as a result of the false statement. There are certain situations, however, in which damages from slander are presumed. Consider, for example, statements that a person is dishonest in his profession or that a person has a socially feared disease. These statements create the presumption of emotional harm or harm to the reputation of that person.

In a case of libel, damage is presumed merely from the publication of the false statement. This distinction is based on the theory that the printed word is more harmful than the spoken word. People in the public eye have less protection against defamation than do private persons.

Truth is an absolute defense in cases involving the torts of slander and libel. In other words, if what is said is true, the person claiming that slander or libel has been committed will not prevail.

Common defamatory statements can be statements that

  • another person has committed a crime.
  • another person has committed an act that would make him or her a social outcast. 
  • would cause a person to suffer public ridicule in his or her business or profession.
  • would cause a person to suffer public ridicule or scorn. 

While reading about defamation, you may have wondered about the First Amendment right to free speech. Doesn't this right conflict with the tort principle of defamation? If so, how is this conflict resolved? Legal scholars have debated these questions for years and continue to do so. In general, it is believed that the two principles do not conflict. Consider the reasons for both principles. On the one hand, freedom of speech is absolutely essential to maintaining a democratic society. On the other hand, a person's good name and reputation are valuable. In fact, these principles coexist by balancing a person's right to free speech against another person's right not to have his or her reputation wrongfully harmed. As such, one can say or write whatever he or she wishes about another, but not if it is false and harmful.

Malicious Prosecution

Malicious prosecution is the tort that results when law enforcement officers or prosecutors misuse the criminal justice system to falsely accuse and try an individual on charges that are fabricated. Several elements must be proved to show that this tort has occurred. Someone must have been charged and prosecuted for a crime. The prosecution must have been initiated maliciously (that is, with intent to harm). There must not be any probable cause for the charge. (Probable cause is defined as enough evidence to cause a reasonable person to believe that the accused probably committed the act charged.) The accused must have suffered injuries, and he or she also must have been found not guilty.

Inflicting Emotional Distress

This tort may be defined as emotional distress deliberately inflicted on one person by another. The acts by the defendant must be extreme and outrageous. Also, they must be intended to cause emotional distress, and the plaintiff must actually suffer severe emotional distress. However, courts and juries have generally been unsympathetic to plaintiffs seeking to recover damages for this tort because it is difficult to prove the damage or injury claimed.

 

Intentional Torts: Property

There are four basic intentional torts that relate to injury to property. They are trespass to real property, trespass to personal property, conversion of personal property, and nuisance. You will recall that real property is land and whatever is attached to or growing on it, such as houses or crops. Personal property consists of everything else, tangible or intangible.

Trespass to Real Property

This tort may be defined as the unauthorized entry onto the real property of another. 

In every case involving civil trespass to real property, it is presumed that the trespass caused damage. In other words, the owner of the real property need not prove there was actual damage to win a lawsuit against the trespasser. In the example, Mr. Johnson would not have to prove damages. He would simply have to prove that you came onto his property without permission.

A person can be liable for trespass to another person's real property without even setting foot on it. For example, a man builds a dam on his own land, and it causes surface water to back up onto a neighbor's property. In this situation, the man who built the dam may be liable for the damages suffered by the neighbor.
In this area of torts, money for damages is sometimes not the real object of a lawsuit. The issue is more often who owns the land.
 

Trespass to and Conversion of Personal Property

Trespass to personal property occurs when there is a temporary interference with the custody or possession of the personal property of another. For example, say Judson's neighbor "borrows" his car without Judson's knowledge. That would basically be a trespass to personal property, even if Judson didn't know the car was taken until its return. If the car was damaged, then the neighbor, the person who committed the tort, called the tortfeasor, would be liable for the damages. The amount of damages requested would be affected by inconvenience, loss of use, and loss of income to Judson.

When the interference in custody or possession is of a permanent nature, then conversion of personal property occurs. This tort depends a great deal on the intent of the defendant. Did the defendant intend to return the property? It also depends on the ability of the plaintiff to recover the property and, often, the amount of time the defendant has had the item. This tort is similar to the crime of theft by taking.

Which of the following situations do you think is a trespass to personal property? Which is a conversion of property?

Nuisance

Nuisance may be defined as anything that causes harm or inconvenience to another. It usually affects others' use or enjoyment of their property. Nuisances frequently concern noises, smells, or lights.

There are two basic types of nuisance: public and private. A public nuisance causes inconvenience or damage to the public as a whole. Situation 19 is a public nuisance. When there is a public nuisance, citizens can ask the district attorney to file a petition in the superior court to stop it, and the court can issue an injunction (an order to stop the activity).

Those who are specially damaged by the nuisance can initiate a lawsuit to recover damages as well as stop the nuisance. Rather than one person bearing the costs of a lawsuit, all those who are especially affected by the nuisance could join together in a "class action" suit against the people or group causing the nuisance. Government agencies, like the Environmental Protection Agency, can also initiate actions against public nuisances harmful to the environment.

On the other hand, a private nuisance usually damages or inconveniences a limited number of individuals. One or all of the persons affected by a private nuisance may file a petition to stop it. They can also sue for the actual damages incurred. Further, most cities have ordinances under which citizens can ask local authorities to halt nuisances. In fact, Georgia law states that this request should be made before court action is sought.

Determining what is or isn't a private nuisance is not always easy because everyone has different tastes and tolerances for inconvenience. For example, some people might be inconvenienced by the nighttime rehearsals of a neighbor's rock band. Others might enjoy the music. To decide whether an act is a nuisance, a court uses this standard: would such an act inconvenience, offend, or damage a reasonable person?

Defenses to Intentional Torts

What happens to the person who is sued for an intentional tort?

There are three general types of defenses to torts: general denial, justification, and mitigation (to mitigate means to make something less severe).

The denial type of defense simply involves a defendant saying, "No, I didn't do what the plaintiff says I did." When this type of defense is employed, the jury must determine whether to believe the plaintiff or defendant. It then awards or denies damages accordingly.

To use the defense of justification, the defendant admits doing the acts complained of by the plaintiff but denies that the acts were wrong. For example, suppose you were being sued for battery. You might admit knocking down the plaintiff, but you deny that it was wrong because you were acting in self-defense. If the jury agreed with your defense, then the plaintiff would lose.

The third type of defense is mitigation. Defendants using this defense admit the conduct claimed by the plaintiff; that is, they admit their conduct was wrong. However, they attempt to reduce the amount of damages claimed by proving that they had no malice, bad faith, or intent to cause harm. Say you were sued by your neighbors for playing your stereo too loud every night. You might claim that you would have turned down the sound if you knew it bothered them. In other words, you would claim the harm was not intended. The success of your defense would depend on whether the jury agreed with it.

* Excerpted from An Introduction to Law in Georgia, Fourth Edition, published by the Carl Vinson Institute of Government, 1998 (updated 2004). The Vinson Institute is not responsible for errors in the online text. Content is for information only; in no way should the information in the book be considered legal advice to anyone on any matter for which there are legal implications. Any such matter should be specifically addressed with an attorney. The book is available for purchase ator by contacting the Publications Program, Carl Vinson Institute of Government, University of Georgia, 201 M. Milledge Avenue, Athens, GA 30602; telephone 706-542-6377; fax 706-542-6239.

Last Review and Update: Jul 30, 2004