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A Tort is Not a Pastry

The average person might not know what a Tort is. Professor Greg Dickinson discusses how he explains the topic to new law students. Tort law addresses wrongdoing between two parties, and attempts to provide compensation for the harm endured. Professor Dickinson introduces the concept of intentional torts as the easiest example to start with - where one party has deliberately inflicted a harm on another party. https://youtube.com/watch?v=mHPUVJnMO00


For many first year subjects, you come into law school with at least some idea of what they're about. You know, you hear “criminal law" and you're like, well, that's when people do crimes against each other; or constitutional law, and you kind of have a vague sense maybe of what that is; and certainly something like property. But with Tort law, when I came into law school, and probably a lot of folks, I didn't know what a Tort was. You know, I had kind of vaguely heard of a pastry called a torte. I couldn't even tell you really what that is. But that's something called a torte. But I had no idea what a legal Tort was. And so, I recognize that with my students, and orient them to that on the first day. And the way I describe it is through the etymology. I'll mention it comes from the Latin torquere, which means to twist, and it relates to kind of moral twistedness. A tort is a wrongdoing that someone does to someone else. It's a wrong between two individuals. And it's a special type of wrong, it's closely related to a moral wrong, but the two don't exactly overlap. And so it's a legal wrong, and a legal wrong that causes injury. And so then the law gets involved and says: well, one person was hurt here by a wrong, committed by another. And the law steps in and allows a solution through the law of torts. And so from a very high level, that's what tort law is; the law that governs when one person wrongs another. Tort law studies how the law should treat wrongs. When one person does something wrong to another, what are we going to do about that? And Tort law's answer usually is: if one person wrongs another in certain recognized ways, then the law says: well, you, the person that got wronged, you have a claim, you have a remedy; you can go and sue them and say: you need to make me whole again, you need to, to fix what you did to me. And that's typically accomplished by paying monetary damages. And so you hurt me in some way, maybe you hurt my body, you injured me, maybe you damaged my property. And the Tort law system allows a lawsuit by the victim, by the person who was harmed, against the person who harmed them, to, as best as the law can make that person whole again that was harmed. I like to start the class with intentional Torts just because they're so intuitive. And by that I mean things like assault where somebody intentionally causes physical harm to another, or battery where you threaten harmful or offensive contact to another. Those sorts of things are so paradigmatic to Tort law. They've been part of Tort law for so long, and they're so clear. Everybody, or I hope everyone, agrees that the punch in the nose is wrong; you shouldn't go around doing that. And so we all agree; there's no argument about whether this was wrong enough to deserve compensation. It's just that everybody agrees, and so it gets into clear focus, what the basic function of tort law is; it says there's certain conduct that we think if you do it to people and harm them, you need to compensate them. And so I start with the intentional torts because there's such clear examples of the sort of conduct that we don't want, and that we want people to be compensated for.

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