Prima Facie Tort: Definition & Elements

Instructor: Kenneth Poortvliet
To make a personal injury case, at a minimum, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant had a duty to not harm the plaintiff, that the defendant breached that duty and such brief was the cause of actual damages. In this lesson we will learn what it means to make a prima facie tort case including all of the necessary elements.

A drunk driver plows into a mini van, and four-year-old Madi was left with life-altering injuries. When the case gets to court, the defense attorney for the insurance company files a motion to dismiss saying that the plaintiffs failed to make a prima facie case for tort relief. The judge looks at the court file and all the documents filed in the case and says, 'case dismissed.' Now why would she do that?

Just What Does Prima Facie Mean?

Prima facie is a Latin term that literally means 'on its face' or 'at first look'. In the legal community it means that for any case made to a court for relief, there is a minimum legal threshold that must be met before the case can continue. So that means before a lawsuit can be considered by the court, the plaintiff must show certain basic elements, and the failure to claim those elements means that the case can be dismissed.

It would be the same as if a young mother, Carla, headed to the lottery office to claim her mega millions. But when she gets there, she gives them a piece of paper that says 'I won the lottery, please pay me!' Needless to say they laughed her out of the office. What she presented them was not prima facie evidence that she was the winner. What would that be? A lottery ticket, of course. But even if she gives them a ticket, does that mean she'll get the money? Of course not, they still have to see if the ticket has all the elements of a valid winning lottery ticket.

Elements of a Case

In the legal world, before a court will look at a claim for damages, the plaintiff, the one bringing the claim, must put in his complaint, all of the items necessary to make a claim. These items are elements, which are the set of facts required to make a case for relief. In the criminal world, these are the sets of facts the prosecutor is required to prove to convict someone of a crime.

Elements of case are like ingredients.
recipe scale

To a court, the elements of a case or criminal prosecution is much like a recipe. All the listed ingredients are needed to make it right. The same exists in a tort case. The word tort is from the Latin word that means 'twisted' or 'torqued'. In modern legal terms, it means that someone has been 'twisted', and wants the court to set it right. Basically, a personal injury lawsuit. The person who commits the tort is called a tortfeasor.

Elements of a Tort Case

There are four basic elements to a personal injury claim: duty, breach, causation, and damages. The plaintiff must show that the person who injured them had a duty to not harm them, that he or she breached that duty by harming them, that whatever they did, was the actual cause of that harm, and that there were actual and tangible damages.

Duty is the obligation that people in a society owe those around them to not place them in harm's way. For example, when you drive a car, you owe others a duty to drive in a safe manner. Duty can come naturally by merely being a member of a society, or it can arise by law or contract. If you see a child floating by in the river flailing her arms and screaming for help, it sounds strange, but you don't have a duty to help. You might be considered a lowlife if you just watch her drown, but legally you don't have to jump in after her. However, if you are a police officer, the law and your status as an officer creates that duty. The same is said for a life guard that has contracted with the owner of the beach or some body of water. She has a contractual duty to assist.

Breach happens when a person with a duty fails to fulfill that duty. If you run a red light, then you have breached your duty as a driver to allow others to proceed in safety. If the paramedic just stands there eating a sandwich and watching the little kid as she bobs on by, then the paramedic is in breach of her duty to act.

Causation is the requirement that the tortfeasor's breach of their duty is the actual cause of the harm. If you're shooting at a moose from your kitchen window, but miss and hit Cindy Lou sitting at her dining room table, then it's a good chance your action might have caused her death. But what if she had died of a heart attack earlier, then even though you had a duty to not shoot her, and you breached that duty, you didn't cause her death. Therefore, you could not be sued for wrongful death.

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