According to the most recent draft of the Restatement (Third) of Torts: Intentional Torts to Persons, the intentional torts protect the rightholder’s interests differently from negligence-based rules and strict liability, placing them into a distinct substantive category. This conceptualization, however, does not provide courts with adequate guidance on how to formulate the element of intent. Different formulations can protect the rightholder’s interests differently from negligence and strict liability, so something else must determine the appropriate way to formulate the element of intent.

The draft Restatement’s reasoning can be easily extended to provide a more useful conceptualization of the intentional torts. The practice of tort law involves the enforcement of behavioral norms, and so the substantive categories of tort law should correspond to normatively distinguishable categories of behavior. For tort purposes, three different paradigmatic forms of social behavior are relevant: aggressive interactions; interactions of mutual advantage; and the remaining nonaggressive, risk-creating interactions that are not motivated by an expectation of mutual benefit. Within this normative framework, the category of intentional torts is defined by aggressive interactions, which involve intentional harms that are normatively different from accidental harms. The intentional torts accordingly protect different interests in a distinctive manner as per the rationale in the draft Restatement.

This normative framework straightforwardly explains a number of established rules while also resolving two questions of intent that have vexed courts and commentators. Difficult issues of intent involve hard questions about how the conduct is best categorized for tort purposes. Once the categories have been conceptualized in behavioral terms, the element of intent has a clear substantive purpose: it determines whether or not an interaction is aggressive and properly governed by the intentional torts.

The above is an abstract from ‘Conceptualizing the Intentional Torts,’ to be published in Volume 10 of the Journal of Tort Law (2017). 

Mark Geistfeld

NYU School of Law

Mark Geistfeld is the Sheila Lubetsky Birnbaum Professor of Civil Litigation at New York University School of Law, where he has been a member of the full-time faculty since 1991. Professor Geistfeld’s research has extensively addressed the common-law rules governing the prevention of and compensation for physical harms. He has authored or co-authored four books and over 40 articles, often showing how difficult doctrinal issues can be resolved by systematic reliance on the underlying legal principles.

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