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What is liability?

The word liability means being responsible for something. In law, it means legal liability, also referred to as “personal liability.” This is defined as liability arising from personal actions.

Liability is a term often used in torts, as torts are concerned with someone suffering harm due to another person’s reckless, careless or negligent actions. There is also criminal liability, which is defined as strict liability and absolute liability in Canadian criminal law.

Liability is a broad concept and covers two main legal areas: the law of torts and criminal law. It’s quite heavily used in personal injury law as well. Of course, there is liability in many other areas of law.

Here is a closer look at what liability means in torts, personal injury law, and criminal law.

Tort law

In tort you have two categories: intentional and unintentional.

Intentional torts are those instances where there was deliberate wrongdoing, or intent. Unintentional torts usually refer to negligence. Negligence means there was no deliberate wrongdoing, but you caused harm to someone, because you acted unreasonably. Liability is a part of both these types of torts.

Under tort law, you have a “standard of liability,” which means that you have to prove a duty of care was owed to you by the other party and they failed to fulfill that obligation.

There are three standards of liability:

  1. Intention: in some civil lawsuits, the plaintiffs have to establish that the defendant desired to cause injury. The way intent can be ascertained here is by proving that the defendant meant to cause the consequences that arose due to their actions.
  2. Negligence: this most often falls under the category of unintentional torts, but can even figure into intentional torts. Here we look at the defendant having failed in their duty of care towards the plaintiff. For example, if you go to the doctor, the doctor has a standard and duty of care to provide the treatment of a reasonable physician.
  3. Strict liability: under tort, this category occurs when neither intention nor negligence is proven, but the defendant is still found to be guilty. The only thing that needs to be proven under strict liability here is that an injury happened.

Personal injury law

One of the biggest areas in which liability claims arise is in personal injury law, which is a subcategory of tort law. In personal injury cases there are often liability claims under the area of negligence. The first question always to ask is: “who is liable?”

When it comes to car accidents and determining accident fault liability often these questions are asked:

  • Did the defendant owe a duty of care to the plaintiff?
  • Did they fail in that duty?
  • Did you suffer harm as a result of the defendant’s conduct?
  • How remote are the damages?
  • Did you suffer damages?

Actual loss has to be suffered in order to make a successful claim for damages.

Criminal law

There are two types of liabilities in criminal law:

  • Strict liability: same as in tort law, this is a concept of liability where the act alone is punishable, regardless if there was intent.
  • Absolute liability: as with strict liability, proof of intent is not needed. However, under this category there are no defenses.

Read more:

The nature of tort law and liability

Strict liability definition

Absolute liability definition