Casual Legal: Tort – More than a funny word!

By Ben Throndson
Reynolds Mirth Richards Farmer LLP
Alberta Municipalities Casual Legal Service Provider

Stroll through the halls of a law office and you might hear someone refer to a “tort” or “tortious liability”. No, it’s not a dessert, or a delicious French Canadian meat pie (that’s tourtière), but the word tort does have a linguistic origin in French. The root meaning of “tort” in French is “twisted” – which is why you can also find the word embedded in “contortionist” and “distorted”!

In the legal world, however, a “tort” simply refers to a form of civil (non-criminal) wrongdoing. This article briefly introduces some common torts relevant to municipalities, and the essential elements which must be proven to prove these torts. Sadly, there is no ground meat filling or pie crust to be found.

Negligence: Summarized very broadly, a successful claim in negligence requires that the defendant causes damage to the plaintiff through conduct that is in breach of the standard of care set by law, and for which the defendant had a duty to avoid this damage. Negligence is a very commonly-claimed tort.

Nuisance: Nuisance can take either a private or public form. A private nuisance is a substantial interference with an occupier’s use and enjoyment of their own land, which is unreasonable in the circumstances. Claims in private nuisance often arise between neighbouring landowners, usually involving some kind of objectionable emanation from one parcel of land to another (such as noise, vibrations, noxious odours, air pollution, or water pollution). In contrast, a public nuisance is an interference with the use and enjoyment of the general public’s right to use and enjoy public areas (such as rights-of-way).

Defamation: To establish a claim in defamation, a plaintiff must show that the alleged defamatory words refer to the plaintiff, that they have been published to a third party, and that they are defamatory, in the sense they “tend to lower the plaintiff’s reputation in the community in the estimation of reasonable persons”. Historically, defamation was subdivided into libel (written defamation) and slander (verbal defamation).

Misfeasance in public office: This tort involves the misuse of authority by public officials. To establish liability, it must first be shown that the public officer engaged in deliberate and unlawful conduct in their capacity as a public officer. Second, the public officer must have been aware their conduct was unlawful and was likely to harm the plaintiff. There are few cases in Canada where liability has been imposed, but claims are brought from time-to-time.

Although “tort” is a strange word, this article has introduced some different types of civil claims which arise. It is also worth noting that, although outside the scope of this article, there are a number of defences which are available to municipalities, including certain statutory defences under the Municipal Government Act (particularly in the context of nuisances relating to a public utility or a dike, ditch, or dam).

To access Alberta Municipalities Casual Legal Helpline, Alberta Municipalities members can call toll-free to 1-800-661-7673 or send an casuallegal [at] (email) to reach the municipal legal experts at Reynolds Mirth Richards and Farmer LLP. For more information on the Casual Legal Service, please call 310-MUNI (6864) or send an riskcontrol [at] (email) to speak to Alberta Municipalities Risk Management staff. Any Regular or Associate member of Alberta Municipalities can access the Casual Legal Service.

DISCLAIMER: This article is meant to provide information only and is not intended to provide legal advice. You should seek the advice of legal counsel to address your specific set of circumstances. Although every effort has been made to provide current and accurate information, changes to the law may cause the information in this article to be outdated.