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Civil Law - Overview And Background

injuries tort products suffered

The most common kind of civil court cases in the United States are tort cases, which include cases of intentional wrongs, negligence and liability such as fraud, defamation, trespassing, and false imprisonment. Tort is the Middle English word meaning "wrong." The plaintiff--the party that suffered the wrongful act and seeks relief in court--is entitled to be restored to the position he or she was in before the tort, whether through economic compensation, medical care, or any other means. This right makes up a fundamental principle of U.S. tort law. Unlike contracts, torts do not involve the violation of any agreed upon course of action. Instead, torts involve the failure to act in a manner generally expected for any given situation. In the 1990s, the majority of tort actions stemmed from automobile injuries and more than 50 percent of all tort cases took at least a year to process.

Every tort case must establish three things. One, the plaintiff must demonstrate that the defendant was bound by a legal duty to act in a certain way. Two, the plaintiff must show that the defendant violated his or her legal duty by failing to act in a certain way. Three, the plaintiff must establish that he or she suffered damages--injuries or losses--as a direct consequence of the defendant's failure to act in the expected way.

Civil law has four main goals. First, it provides an avenue to compensate victims for injuries suffered as a result of the negligent action of others. Second, it holds the party that caused any injuries or damages responsible for the cost of them. Third, civil law seeks to prevent the future occurrence of negligent, careless, and risky behavior that leads to civil law actions. Fourth, it upholds the rights of people who have suffered injuries or damages as a result of the negligent party.

Civil law cases involve broken agreements and contracts, negligence, strict liability, and intentional wrongful acts--each of which will be explained briefly below. Broken agreements include breaches of written and verbal contracts between two or more parties, which one of the parties finds necessary to resolve through a civil action. Negligence refers to conduct that deviates from what is generally expected in any given situation and covers acts such as careless and reckless driving. Many injury civil actions result from negligence, careless behavior that increases the chances of injuries to people or damage to property.

Intentional wrongs include acts that the perpetrator carries out knowing that they are harmful to people or property, such as assault, battery, fraud, and defamation. When civil law cases hold defendants liable who are not negligent or guilty of intentionally committing wrongful acts, they impose strict liability, which covers beneficial and necessary activities that create high levels of risk to society. Such activities include those involving hazardous materials and substances.

During the latter half of the twentieth century, the number of civil cases rose with the adoption of new liability and negligence policies, which made it easier to sue manufacturers and service providers. The growth stemmed partially from efforts by legal theorists to reduce injuries suffered by consumers, who, these theorists assumed, paid little attention to risks and bought very little accident insurance. To lessen the burden on consumers, these theorists strove to shift more responsibility to producers of goods and providers of services.

Prior to the new tort policies, consumers bore the burden of determining whether products or services they purchased were safe. Afterwards, employers, doctors, and manufacturers among others held a greater share of the responsibility for damages suffered by consumers from defective products and negligent services.

A key case that ushered in the new tort policies was Vandermark v. Maywood Bell Ford. In 1958, Chester Vandermark purchased a new car from the Maywood Bell Ford dealership in California. Six weeks later, the car began to malfunction while Chester and his sister Mary were driving in it. Because the brakes failed, the car crashed into a pole, seriously injuring both Vandermarks. They sued the dealer, which denied all responsibility. However, the California Supreme court decided that Maywood Bell Ford was responsible because it acted as "an integral part of the overall producing and marketing enterprise that should bear the cost of injuries resulting from defective products." Other cases such as MacPherson v. Buick Motor Co. created a precedent for holding manufacturers responsible for hazardous products later sold to customers who sustain injuries from them. These cases extended the responsibility for dangerous and defective products from retailers back to the manufacturers of the products in order to protect consumers.

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