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Robbins: Everything you ever wanted to know about torts

First year. First day. First hour. Torts.

Second hour was contracts. Third was real property. Then constitutional law, legal writing and civil procedure. Maybe not in that particular order, though; it was a long time ago. That was the 1L menu, first semester, at the School of Law.

My torts professor was a visiting professor from the University of Tulsa named Sue Reed, who was as slender as her last name suggested. She was not, however, to be trifled with. Sue Reed was a force, and I was her first victim.



On that first day, first hour, first class, I was the first one to be called.

“Mr. Robbins,” she threateningly began. “Can you tell us the facts of…?”



To be honest, all these years later, I don’t recall what case it was. What I do recall is that I stood up straight and tall, cleared my voice, and began. I had read the case, of course, along with the 30 or so others that had been assigned to us before the first class began, but …

Let me take a moment to tell you about the Socratic Method around which the teaching of law is erected.

First of all, Socrates, for whom the method, not surprisingly, is named, lived a fair piece down the road, from 470-399 B.C. He was a Greek philosopher who despite being considered one of the greatest and most important philosophers who ever lived left no writings at all. An illiterate, it seems.

Most of what we know about his life and work comes from the writings of his disciples, Xenophon (isn’t that a noble gas?) and Plato. He lived during a period of transition in the Greek empire, and after the Peloponnesian War, he was tried, convicted and executed for corrupting the young. That, perhaps, is why his teachings persist.

Socrates engaged in questioning his students in “an unending search for truth.” That’s the party line at least. He sought to get to the foundations of his students’ views by asking continual questions until a contradiction was exposed, thus proving the fallacy of the initial assumption. This became known as the Socratic method and may be his most enduring contribution to philosophy.

It was all a feint, I think. My theory is that Socrates kept asking questions because he simply didn’t know the answers and was too embarrassed to come clean.

Have you ever read “Being There” by Jerzy Kosinki? The main character, Chance, ends up as president of the United States because people mistake his dunderheadedness for profundity. I get the feeling that Socrates was something like that.

Nonetheless, what the Socratic Method consists of is, essentially, institutionalized bludgeoning. And, for this, in law school, you pay a king’s ransom in tuition.

Anyway, I was first. Although I began confidently, I was soon a deer in the headlights.

Now, if you are anything like me — before I took a yearlong class about it anyway — you don’t know a tort from an apple strudel. But, I assure you, there is a difference. The latter is yummy, particularly with a steaming cup of Joe, and the former is … well, allow me to explain.

There are main kerfs, fractures or dividing lines in the law. Each separates one area of law from the others. And while there certainly is overlap, one of the main areas of law is torts. Think of each of the main areas as towers standing not-quite shoulder-to-shoulder with connecting bridges. The rules of evidence and civil procedure may be two of the connecting bridges, and one of the tall towers is torts, beneath which are stacked the precedents, case law and statutes of which it is constructed.

Stated simply, a “tort” is an act or omission that gives rise to injury or harm to another and amounts to a civil wrong for which legal liability may be imposed. The primary aims of tort law are to provide relief to injured parties for harms caused by others, impose liability on parties responsible for the harm and deter others from committing harmful acts.

Torts ideally shift the burden of loss from the injured party to the party who is at fault. Typically, a party seeking redress through tort law will ask for damages in the form of monetary compensation.

Torts fall into three general categories: intentional torts (intentionally hitting a person), negligent torts (causing an accident by failing to obey traffic rules) and strict liability torts (liability for making and selling defective products). Intentional torts are wrongs that the defendant knew or should have known would result through their actions or omissions. Negligent torts occur when the defendant’s actions were unreasonably unsafe. Strict liability torts do not depend on the degree of care that the defendant used. Rather, in strict liability cases, courts focus on whether a particular result or harm manifested.

Not quite as yummy as an apple strudel but, hey, this, after all, was law school, not the Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts.

I said my piece, endured the professor’s Socratic slings and arrows, plugged my fists into my pockets and sat quietly down. I had lit the fuse and we, the 1L class, were launched.

Momma told me there’d be days like this. There were, among those of us who survived, about 1,000 more until the day our graduation caps were screwed onto our newly pointy heads.


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