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§5.01 Tort Law—Some Basics

Lesson 5: Tort & Contract Law

A tort is generally defined as a civil wrong, other than a breach of contract, for which the law provides a remedy in the form of damages. Negligence actions, especially actions arising from motor vehicle accidents, are the most common torts alleged in small claim court.

In negligence actions, the plaintiff must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that:

  • The defendant was under a duty to protect the plaintiff from injury,
  • The defendant breached that duty,
  • The plaintiff suffered actual injury or loss, and
  • The loss or injury proximately resulted from the defendant's breach of the duty.

There are two tests for determining whether an act or omission proximately caused harm:

  • “But for” rule: An act or omission is not regarded as a cause of an event if the particular event would have occurred without it, i.e., but for a defendant’s actions, the harm would not have occurred.
  • “Substantial factor” rule: A defendant’s conduct is a cause of the event if it was a material element and a substantial factor in bringing it about. This rule aids in deciding cases in which two causes result in an injury and either one would have been sufficient to bring about an identical result; and cases in which a similar but not identical result would have followed without the defendant’s act or in which defendant has made an insignificant contribution to the result.

Once it is established that the defendant’s conduct was one of the causes of the plaintiff’s injury, there remains the question whether the defendant should be legally responsible for the injury. It is generally an issue whether the defendant is under any duty to the plaintiff and whether the consequences were foreseeable.
Click here for a table of common statutes of limitation, including for tort actions.

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