A tale of torts

A tale of torts

I’ll bet we’ve all had those moments where we open our mouths, say something, and then wish the ground would open up and swallow us, because we’re so embarrassed. Usually the person on the receiving end acts graciously – sometimes so much so that we don’t find out about our mistake until another kind person points it out.

Now, I have to confess that I sing in choirs – I have done so for many years and really enjoy singing challenging music. So I was in a choir full of singers of all ages from all round the region last week, at the final rehearsals for a concert. A youngish woman was looking at a law textbook while we were having a break. Naturally, I asked if she was at a law school. When she told me that she taught at one, I asked what subjects she taught. “Oh, I teach torts law. But I suppose that doesn’t mean much to you”. I reflected for a moment. Should I be nice and pretend it never happened? Should I be nice at the time but make sure she found out later? Or should I respond in a way that would encourage her never to do that to any other person?

In my experience, if people don’t know what torts law is they will ask you.

But I knew what she meant – before I went to law school I could never get to grips with “torts” because it is a really weird word. It comes from an old Latin word meaning “wrong” and refers to those areas of civil law (as against criminal or statute law) dealing with claims resulting from wrongful actions resulting from non-consensual relationships. So it covers a wide range of issues like negligence, trespass, defamation and even my old friend “passing off”, which crops up when someone misuses your brand or other intellectual property.

The torts are all relatively self-contained areas of the law, but are based on a duty to other people in society – the duty to be careful not to injure or cause harm to other people or their personal or property rights. Torts law is pretty ancient and I suspect it is derived from fundamental survival rules for all creatures that live in groups. Even my cats, who fight like crazy with each other given half a chance, call a truce when the weather is bad and they have to coexist in the same house at the same time.

Some of my favourite court cases are torts cases. That’s because they always tell stories about real people. There’s the lady who was dreadfully sick after swallowing half a bottle of ginger beer before finding what looked like the remains of a snail in the other half (negligence). And the Australian chap who was so cut up by his woollen underwear, which was not properly washed of scouring fluid, that he had to recuperate in Rotorua (negligence again). OK, so you already know which response I chose for my young colleague. I said (really nicely, mind you) “Oh, I don’t know … I did get the prize for contract and torts law when I was at law school.” Certainly her physical response was encouraging – her face matched my deep pink scarf. Perhaps it was the scarf that threw her. Who knows?

This article is intended for general information, and should not be relied on as specific legal advice. You should consult a lawyer for advice relating to your own specific legal problems. Rae Nield can be contacted at

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