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A tort, generally speaking, is a civil wrong. This definition leaves some things to be desired – for example, one remedy for a tort is an injunction, which prevents harm before it occurs rather than punishes it. The definition also covers breach of contract – but contract law is its own specific field. Despite these drawbacks, the definition is serviceable.
Torts are distinct from crimes, which are usually considered a wrong perpetrated against society as a whole, and are prosecuted by the power of the state. Torts are prosecuted by the injured individual (or his legal representative), and the damages sought are monetary or compensatory, rather than incarceration. Torts and crimes can be prosecuted concurrently, though not jointly, and civil recovery is not precluded by a successful criminal prosecution.
In lieu of the threat of incarceration, torts carry the threat of punitive damages - most simply defined as recovery that does not stem from any actual damage but rather is meant to deter future tortious conduct. Much of the debate around tort reform centers around the issue of punitive damages: how much should one individual be able to benefit in order to deter another person's or entity's uncertain future conduct? Whether punitive damages should be capped (further than the limits set by the Supreme Court under constitutional due process) does not change the fact that torts plays an important role in helping define the limits of acceptable behavior in our society. The role played by torts in shaping law is another source of controversy amongst tort reform camps, but the actuality of torts law in today's legal field is undeniable.
Torts fall into three categories: Negligence, Intentional Torts, and Strict Liability. On a simplistic level, negligence is behavior an individual is held responsible for even though no harm was intended, intentional torts cover knowing behavior that leads to liability, and strict liability does not involve fault or a reasonable standard of care.