How to tell the Difference between Torts and Crimes

Torts.  The word “tort” comes, as do so many within the legal system, from Latin.  Its meaning has evolved from “twist” in that language, through Old French and Middle English to the present specific “breach” which is contemplated in most case law.  U.S. Army doctors could read up on how to protect themselves from any repercussions of “breaching” their relations with patients by going to publications helpfully written by U.S. Army lawyers.  “In terms of torts, think about the four elements of: Duty, Breach, Causation, and Injury.”

In short, those who have a non-contractual duty, for instance, to care for patients in a way that is effective and humane could reduce their chances of being sued if they not only did their professional duty but were courteous in the delivery of their services.  In most cases, rudeness is not a crime (despite expectations concerning the behavior of physicians), but it could make someone angry enough to go before a court of competent jurisdiction and demand reparations (usually money) for their distress.

To explain further, the duty of the physician is clearly laid out as primarily medical services, but that duty may be considered breached by the doctor if there are sufficient wrong steps in behavior on his or her part to convince a court that the complainant (the patient, in this case) was materially damaged in some tangible way.  This fulfills the need for causation, and the difficult definition of the injury is up to the court.


“[A crime] is a wrong committed against society itself (with society as the

victim).”  This definition is suspect in some circles, overlapping as it does with the breach of relational duty to one another that falls to individuals and the quite obvious injuries observed in some crimes.  However torts and crimes may share elements, the major difference is that crimes do not rely upon the aggrieved party’s decision whether to prosecute an offense, but rather there is a system of law enforcement officers that works with district and states’ attorneys to press society’s case against offenders.

The damages adjudicated by the courts in criminal cases involve incarceration of convicted offenders and can, if the crime involved the death of another person, include the death of the person or persons convicted of that offense.  Monetary repayments may be ordered, but they are not the primary tools available to the court, whose judgments are intended as punishment, not reimbursement of capital losses.

Questions of appropriate systems of justice

 “The object of tort law is the award of compensation to deserving injured parties, while the object of criminal law is the punishment of the criminal.”  As noted above, some in the legal system question whether all torts are properly separate from inclusion in the criminal dockets.  Others see certain crimes as candidates for handling in the arena of civil law.  This discussion will continue, as law is a constantly evolving part of human interaction.