What Are the Differences Between Strict Liability, Negligence, and Intentional Torts?

As you can imagine, the daily work of a lawyer is usually far more practical than the theoretical training in a law school classroom. In fact, attorneys sometimes remember their law school exams with a bit of amusement.

As with many tests, professors look for ways to test lots of topics in a single question. A classic example might involve a man stealing a truck full of animals; the man escaping with the truck and crashing it, thereby causing injuries to others; a monkey escaping from a cage and biting someone; and a doctor at the hospital treating the injured and making medical errors.

As unrealistic - and perhaps silly - as this exam question sounds, there is a method to the madness. The professor intended to test student understanding of the differences between strict liability torts, negligence, and intentional torts – which is exactly what we will discuss in this article.

What Exactly Is a “Tort?”

A tort is a civil wrong (not arising from contractual obligations) that injures another person. Torts give rise to civil causes of action in court, and can result from both intentional and unintentional acts.

Tort law developed in large part as a method by which: (1) society could be protected against wrongful actors; and (2) individuals could resolve their disputes in an orderly fashion without resorting to violence and other inappropriate methods of resolution. To a great extent, tort law often follows criminal law. For example, it is a crime to steal property, but it is also a tort to improperly take the property of another.

Of course, there are several important differences. First, the government brings a criminal action and an individual brings a tort action. Second, a victorious tort lawsuit results in money damages (and sometimes injunctive relief), while a successful criminal conviction can result in incarceration, fines, and probation. Finally, many torts arise from negligent actions on the part of the tortfeasor. It is far less common for negligent behavior to constitute a crime.

Intentional Torts

Intentional torts are a class of torts that require the wrongdoer to intend the action that results in harm to the victim. The tort of battery, which requires a harmful or offensive touching of a victim, is an example of an intentional tort in which the wrongdoer must intend the action.

Intentionally pushing another, or making sexual contact without consent, can be examples of battery. But what if a passenger on a crowded bus bumps into someone when the bus hits a bump? The person bumped takes offense. Would this constitute a battery? Not if the alleged wrongdoer’s actions were truly accidental – the person lacked the required intent. This could be one example of the difference between an intentional tort and negligence, which we’ll cover more in detail later in this article.

Other common intentional torts include trespass to land, assault, intentional infliction of emotional distress, false imprisonment, and conversion.

Strict Liability

What’s the difference between being strictly liable vs. liable? Strict liability applies to certain causes of action that require no wrongful intent at all on the part of the tortfeasor. The most common form of strict liability applies in products liability cases. In Oregon, product liability civil action can be taken against manufacturers, distributors, sellers, and lessors of dangerous products liable for personal injury, death, or property damage arising out of

  • defects in design, testing, inspection, and manufacturing;
  • failure to warn; and
  • failure to properly instruct.

A second category of actions to which strict liability applies is abnormally dangerous activities. Lawyers sometimes argue in court over what actions are abnormally dangerous, but a classic example is blasting activity.

Finally, Oregon Revised Statutes section 609.329 holds a keeper of an exotic animal strictly liable for a variety of costs and injuries caused by the animal and/or its escape. So you may want to think twice before purchasing an exotic pet!

Negligence

We have discussed negligence in many different contexts in our different blog articles. After all, negligence is the most common form of tort action, which applies when a tortfeasor fails to act as a reasonable person would have acted under the same or similar circumstances. Again, the difference between an intentional tort and negligence comes down to whether someone had intent to harm.

Negligence-based torts involve some of the following: medical malpractice; nursing home negligence; semi-truck and automobile negligence cases; premises liability cases; wrongful death; and a variety of other personal injury cases. When a wrongdoer’s negligence causes injury to a victim, the victim is entitled to recover damages for the harm caused.

Strict Liability vs. Negligence: Understanding the Difference

As you can see from the definitions above, strict liability and negligence have something in common: neither type of tort requires any intent to harm. In other words, in both strict liability and negligence, you can be found responsible for harm even if you did not intend to do harm.

So, what are the exact differences in strict liability vs. negligence? It comes down to the level of care expected to be carried out by the perpetrator. Again, negligence is the failure to provide a reasonable amount of care, usually as compared to what another person of similar knowledge would do in the same or similar circumstances.

Strict liability, on the other hand, does not necessarily involve any expected level of care. Instead, it assigns liability to an entity whose actions caused harm even without fault or intent. Take the example of product liability. A company that sold faulty products that injured customers may be found strictly liable not because they failed to exercise a certain level of care, but simply because their actions (selling harmful products) resulted in harm.

Call with Questions

Tort law is designed to make society safer by holding wrongdoers accountable for their actions. At Nelson MacNeil Rayfield, we have plenty of experience with strict liability torts, negligence, and intentional torts - and we fight to obtain justice for our clients and to hold tortfeasors accountable. If you’ve been injured by the acts of another, please call us with your questions. We will be happy to help.


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