When someone commits a tort, the victim has the right to seek legal recourse by filing a lawsuit. New York recognizes various tort causes of action (CoA) under its statutes. While some CoAs are common, others are less known. In this article, we will explore the different tort causes of action recognized in New York and provide examples of notable cases.
What is a Tort Cause of Action?
In New York, a tort is defined as an unlawful act that causes harm to someone’s person, property, reputation, or similar interests. For instance, if an individual suffers an injury, they can seek compensation from the responsible party through the help of lawyers and the court system. A famous example is the defamation case of Johnny Depp vs. Amber Heard (Depp v. Heard), in which Depp emerged as the plaintiff.
List of Tort Causes of Action
In today’s global market, commercial litigation has seen a significant increase. Here are some of the major types of tort causes of action that can lead to legal claims in New York, including those related to commercial litigation:
- Misappropriation of trade secrets
- Conversion of business property
- Deceptive and unlawful trade practices
- Breach of fiduciary duty
- Trespass to land
- Claims of Unjust Enrichment
Let’s delve into each of these tort causes of action and explore their definitions and implications.
Misappropriation of Trade Secrets
New York law recognizes the importance of employers safeguarding their proprietary information from misuse by employees after their employment ends. However, courts carefully review such clauses, upholding them only if they meet specific standards of reasonableness.
Conversion of Business Property
“Conversion” refers to the intentional taking or unlawful use of someone else’s property. It includes situations where there is a distinct, identifiable fund that should be treated in a particular manner. The intent to take or exercise control over the property is sufficient, regardless of whether the defendant intended to do so. Examples of conversion include giving someone’s property to an unauthorized person or unlawfully combining finances.
Deceptive and Unlawful Trade Practices
Under New York General Business Law, both the state attorney general and private individuals can file claims against unfair and illegal business practices. The law aims to protect consumers from deceptive practices in business, trade, commerce, and the provision of services. Claims made under this legislation often involve false or deceptive advertising targeting consumers.
Breach of Fiduciary Duty
A person has a fiduciary duty to act in the best interests of another person or entity. This duty entails trust and reliance on the fiduciary to use their discretion or knowledge for the other party’s benefit. Breach of fiduciary duty occurs when the fiduciary fails to fulfill their obligations, resulting in losses for the other party. Violating the duty of care, loyalty, or truthfulness are examples of breaching fiduciary duty.
Negligence is the most common type of tort claim. It occurs when someone acts carelessly and causes injury to another person. Four elements must be established for a negligence claim to succeed:
- Duty: The person must have a duty of care towards another.
- Breach: The person must breach that duty.
- Causation: The breach must directly cause harm.
- Harm: The harm must result in actual damages.
If any of these elements cannot be demonstrated, the negligence claim is inadequate.
Civil assault refers to the intentional act by a defendant that reasonably causes the plaintiff to fear harmful or offensive contact. Unlike criminal assault, physical contact is not necessary. Intentionally causing harm or fear to another person constitutes assault as an intentional tort.
Battery occurs when the defendant intentionally makes harmful or offensive contact with the plaintiff. Assault and battery often go hand in hand. Battery encompasses the injurious or objectionable contact, and it is the closest term to criminal assault. For battery to be established, the plaintiff must demonstrate that the defendant acted intentionally and caused harm through the contact.
Trespass to Land
Trespass to land refers to intentional intrusion or interference with someone else’s property. It is akin to criminal trespass and is considered a malicious injury to property.
Defamation involves intentionally making false statements about someone and communicating them to a third party, thereby damaging their reputation. In New York, the landmark case New York Times Co. v. Sullivan set the standard that public officials must prove “actual malice” to be entitled to damages for defamation. To meet the definition of actual malice, the defendant must have acted with reckless disregard for the truth or with knowledge of the falsehood.
Claims of Unjust Enrichment
Unjust enrichment, unlike other CoAs, is not inherently an intentional tort. In New York, courts have determined that unjust enrichment requires three elements to be demonstrated: the defendant gained an advantage at the plaintiff’s expense, equity and morality demand restitution, and the plaintiff sustained losses. Recognizing unjust enrichment does not require intent, but rather the existence of these three elements.
Extortion occurs when someone uses threats or force to obtain money or property from another person, usually under the threat of physical harm, property damage, or public humiliation. The severity of an extortion conviction varies depending on the tactics used. For example, demanding money to conceal an adulterous affair can be considered extortion.
Case Study: Kickertz v. New York University
In the case of Kickertz v. New York University, a former dental college student filed a plenary action against the university and faculty members. The student alleged false and misleading advertising, breach of contractual promises, defamation, and discrimination. The Supreme Court, New York County, dismissed the plenary action and the Article 78 petition. The student appealed the decision.
Case Study: Stuart’s LLC v. Edelman
In Stuart’s LLC v. Edelman, a former employee was sued for tortiously interfering with their former employer’s contractual relationship and engaging in unfair competition. The lower court ruled in favor of the plaintiff, but the New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division, Second Department, amended and decreased the award after finding that only the claims for tortious interference with a contract were proven. The court emphasized the need for additional evidence to support claims of tortious interference with business relations or unfair competition.
Tort causes of action provide a legal avenue for seeking both compensatory and punitive damages. They differ from breach of contract claims as tort claims allow for the recovery of fines and compensation for the victim’s losses. Additionally, tort claims often include damages for pain and suffering. Commercial torts are prevalent in New York, reflecting the complexities of today’s business landscape.
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