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  • James Notaris

    CPA, ESQ, Legal Editor

  • Tyler Dikun

    Executive Editor

    4 types

  • Law is divided into four broad categories.

  • These types of law are tort law, contract law, property law and criminal law. 

  • Learn more about the four types of law here!

4 Types of Law

Law and Order is more than just a long-running television show. Laws have been the fabric of society and innovation since the dawn of civilization. The Code of Hammurabi, a large stone etched with hieroglyphs, is one of the earliest and best preserved examples of laws. With the advent of written law, government institutions could enforce the right to life and property. Trade, banking, literature, and art all thrived due to the creation of modern civilization. 

While there are an estimated 15,000 to 50,000 laws in the U.S. alone, there are four types of laws that modern nations abide by. Laws can be broken down into torts, contract laws, property laws, and criminal laws. Although they may appear to encompass similar situations, each type of law is unique in its structure and enforcement. 

Tort Law

A tort refers to a situation where someone believes they have been wronged. This includes an invasion of privacy, damages inflicted, losses sustained, or an act of negligence. Similar to criminal law, the injured party in a tort lawsuit must prove that they have suffered some foreseeable loss or harm. Tort law or common law it was first known, arose in Germany during the middle ages. In the Germanic common law system, perpetrators were mandated to pay a certain fine. If the fine for actions such as trespassing, slander, or breach of contract was not paid, the defendant would be imprisoned. 

Tort law is a hot topic in the legal world. Many tort reformers believe this type of law is abused for financial purposes. As such, modern torts are heavily influenced by insurance law and settle through a claims adjustment rather than through trial. The amount of money the injured party can be awarded is often based on the ceiling that the insurance company sets for a possible payment. 

Stella Liebeck vs. McDonald’s Restaurants

There are several universal truths that we all abide by: What goes up must come down, every action must have a reaction, and fresh coffee will burn you. Stella Liebeck learned this final truth the hard way. On February 22nd 1992, 79 year-old Stella Liebeck ordered a fresh cup of coffee from the drive-thru window of McDonald’s

Because their 1989 Ford Probe was not equipped with cup-holders, Stella’s grandson pulled the car into an open spot so she could add cream and sugar to her coffee. Stella held the cup between her knees as she began to remove the lid. Unfortunately, the coffee cup tipped over and completely emptied onto Stella’s mid-section.

The 79 year-old had sustained third-degree burns an estimated six percent of her body. Stella remained in the hospital for eight days for multiple skin grafting procedures. During her stay in the hospital, Stella would go on to lose 20 lbs and remain permanently disfigured. After her ordeal, Stella sought to settle with the fast-food giant for $20,000, an approximation based on her loss of income, medical expenses, future medical expenses, and her daughter’s loss of income during the time she had to take care of her mother. When McDonald’s offered only $800, Stella retained the rights of Texas attorney Reed Morgan.

During a widely covered trial that took place in August 1994, Liebeck’s legal team discovered that McDonald’s franchisees were required to heat their coffee to 180 and 190 degrees. Furthermore, the team found through field research that many other fast-food restaurants served their coffee at least 20 degrees cooler than McDonald’s.

 A jury found McDonald’s 80 percent negligent for the burns due to an insufficiently small warning label on each coffee cup and serving their coffee at unreasonable temperatures. Stella was awarded $160,000 in compensatory damages and $2.7 million in punitive damages due to the negligence.

Contract Law

Ever hear the saying, “always get it in writing”? The fact of the matter is, a person’s word does hold the same level of gravitas as a written contract. A contract is a legally forceable between parties to do or not do something. A legal contract must contain an offer, the acceptance of said offer, the intent of both parties to enter into a legally binding agreement, consideration. The term consideration refers to something of value that is exchanged for the service laid out in the contract. This typically refers to a sum of money or product. Contracts can be legally enforceable if they are verbal, but a verbal contract must first be proved to have taken place by an outside party.

Contracts also contain terms and provisions that each party must fulfill. Before parties enter a contract, mental capacity and maturity of the parties must be proved. Contract lawyers are hired to draft legal contracts or ascertain when there has been a breach of contract. Furthermore, these lawyers also assist with compliance, real estate transactions, reviewing employee manuals, and intellectual property issues.

Coward vs. Motor Insurers’ Bureau

Two men, Cole and Coward, had an arrangement where Cole would give Coward a ride on the back seat of his motorbike to and from work in exchange for money. In 1963, both men were killed in a motor vehicle accident. In response, Coward’s wife made an insurance claim against the Cole estate. The claim was denied by Cole’s insurance company due to the fact that the  company did not cover pillion (backseat) motorcycle riders.

Coward’s wife pursued the Motor Insurance Bureau for damages as the only route for a possible monetary award. The MIB is obligated to pay a monetary sum in a situation where the driver does not have an insurance policy. Mrs. Coward first needed to prove that both her husband and Mr. Cole had an existing contract in place for rides to and from work.

The Court of Appeals ruled that no formal contract had ever taken place. The court argued that there were no terms as to how long the agreement would last, what would happen in default of payment, default of availability of transport, or anything written down to prove intent. The carpool was simply an informal agreement and therefore not legally enforceable.

Property Law

The enforcement of property rights is one of the most important facets of a society. In parts of the world where property rights are not enforced, there tends to be a dearth of merchant and manufacturing activity as businesses are warded off by the threat of theft and destruction. Property law outlines the ownership of land and personal items. Some subsections of property law include estate law, family law, and municipal law.

There are two different types of property: real property and personal property. Real property refers to land and things attached to said land like a home, building, garage, or agriculture. Personal property refers to personal possessions like a computer, valuable baseball card, or family heirloom. The transfer  and ownership of property differ from state to state.

Property lawyers generally practice transactional law. They must be masters in technical writing as even one word can dramatically alter property ownership. Property lawyers have an expert understanding of deeds, zoning laws, eminent domain, and easements.

Pierson vs. Post (1805)

As one one of the most famous property law cases, Pierson vs. Post would provide precedent for current property law cases. One day in 1805, two men named Post and Pierson went out on a fox hunt. Post’s dogs cornered a fox, but Pierson is the one who ended up killing the fox. Post sued, claiming that pursuing the fox gave him a right to it. The court ruled that a person could only claim ownership over a wild animal by actually physically possessing it or mortally wounding it. Post would only have a claim over the fox if Pierson had actually interfered with Post’s pursuit of it.

Criminal Law

Criminal law may be the most widely recognizable law. We often think of criminal law in clear-cut terms. If someone robs a convenience store, gets into a bar fight, or hits someone with their car, this becomes a criminal case. Criminal law defines what conduct is classified as a crime. Federal, state, and local governments have their own set of penal codes that they enforce. Individuals who violate criminal law face fines, probation, or imprisonment. Lawsuits against perpetrators are carried out by prosecutors who act on behalf of the government.

Criminal defense lawyers specialize in the defense of individuals or companies that have been charged with criminal activity. Criminal defense lawyers can be either privately detained or assigned to the case if the accused cannot afford legal defense. Criminal defense lawyers must have an expert knowledge of the U.S. Constitution. Lawyers analyze whether law enforcement enacted an unlawful search and seizure or if the accused has been harmed in any way. They also build their defense through a thorough investigation of the case, negotiate for a plea bargain, and draft appeals.

In a criminal trial, the jury is selected and agreed upon by both the prosecution and defense. Both sides make their opening statement, cross examine the witnesses, and give their closing arguments. At this point the jury deliberates and reaches a verdict which is then read aloud in the courtroom.

United States vs. Dish Network

The U.S. District Court for the Central District of Illinois ordered the cable provider Dish Network to $280 million civil penalties and damages to the federal government, California, Illinois, North Carolina, and Ohio. The court found that Dish Network had made over 100 million telemarketing calls to numbers on National Do-Not-Call Registry. The court also required certain provisions to prevent Dish Network from repeating their telemarketing scheme including the ban of illegal robocalls.

So Now You Know the Four Types of Law

Law may seem complicated and often is. Yet, as evidenced above, the thousands of laws that make up the United States can be broken down into four categories. As an upstanding citizen, it is important to know your rights know when they have been violated. The thousands of hardworking advocates are at your service to make sure justice is served.

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