What is a tort?

As a personal injury lawyer, I see a lot of people in my office who really wish they didn’t have to be there. Typically, they’re coming in feeling overwhelmed because of some terrible accident and have found that the insurance companies are too far apart with what feels fair compensation for their bills, losses, and the long-term cost of the injuries from the accident. They know they’re just beginning a process that seemed extremely confusing and complicated, and that there will lots of decisions to make based on new information that will have a profound impact on theirs and their loved ones’ lives. It’s one of my favorite parts of my job to help guide this process and help my clients understand what is going on.

A question I’m often asked early on is, “what is a tort?” As so many legal terms do, the word comes from Latin meaning twist, wrong, or harm. Think of it as more similar to torque than a type of pastry. The legal process of torts doesn’t involve the government taking action against the wrongdoer like in criminal law. As a civil process, these types of cases involve a plaintiff seeking compensation, usually financial, for harm the defendant’s actions caused.

Negligence is one of the biggest factors in these kinds of cases. The idea behind negligence is the belief that every member of society is supposed to act responsibly and avoid putting other people at risk – a bit like the golden rule. Every time someone is hurt doesn’t automatically mean negligence was involved, however. So it’s up to the plaintiff to show that a reasonably prudent person in the defendant’s position would have done things differently under those same circumstances, and that would have avoided the problem in the first place.

It’s easy to think of examples of this kind of negligence. Certainly drunk and distracted drivers are negligent the moment they begin driving. A reasonable, prudent person would not drink and drive nor text and drive because those behaviors increase greatly the chance of a collision. Also, medical complications from a careless doctor, such as in instances where a surgeon operates on the wrong limb or leaves a pair of scissors in someone’s body. Dog bites are another example – the person responsible for a dog must not let it roam free, especially if it’s been known to be aggressive. The common ground here is that each defendant would have ignored the risk their choices and behavior posed to others, and the plaintiff was hurt as a result.

I hope this helps your understanding about the legal process of torts and personal injury law. If there’s any way I or anyone else at my firm can help you with a case of your own, don’t hesitate to call. Bill Coats Law is located right in downtown Bellingham, and works with clients all over Whatcom and Skagit Counties. You can reach us through this contact form, or by calling (360) 392-2833.

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