Roman law contained provisions for torts in the form of delict, which later influenced the civil law jurisdictions in Continental Europe, but a distinctive body of law arose in the common law world traced to English tort law. The word 'tort' was first used in a legal context in the 1580s, although different words were used for similar concepts prior to this time.
Torts and crimes at common law originate in the Germanic system of compensatory fines for wrongs (OE unriht), with no clear distinction between crimes and other wrongs. In Anglo-Saxon law, most wrongs required payment in money or in kind (bōt, literally 'remedy') to the wronged person or their clan. Wīte (literally 'blame, fault') was paid to the king or holder of a court for disturbances of public order. Weregild, which was a murder fine based on a victim's worth, was intended to prevent blood feuds. Some wrongs in later law codes were botleas 'without remedy' (e.g. theft, open murder, arson, treason against one's lord), that is, unable to be compensated, and those convicted of a botleas crime were at the king's mercy. Items or creatures which caused death were also destroyed as deodands. Assessing intention was a matter for the court, but Alfred the Great's Doom Book did distinguish unintentional injuries from intentional ones, whereas culpability depended on status, age, and gender.
After the Norman Conquest, fines were paid only to courts or the king, and quickly became a revenue source. A wrong became known as a tort or trespass, and there arose a division between civil pleas and pleas of the crown. The petty assizes (i.e. of novel disseisin, of mort d'ancestor, and of darrein presentment) were established in 1166 as a remedy for interference with possession of freehold land. The trespass action was an early civil plea in which damages were paid to the victim; if no payment was made, the defendant was imprisoned. The plea arose in local courts for slander, breach of contract, or interference with land, goods, or persons. Although the details of its exact origin are unclear, it became popular in royal courts so that in the 1250s the writ of trespass was created and made de cursu (available by right, not fee); however, it was restricted to interference with land and forcible breaches of the king's peace. It may have arisen either out of the "appeal of felony", or assize of novel disseisin, or replevin. Later, after the Statute of Westminster 1285, in the 1360s, the "trespass on the case" action arose for when the defendant did not direct force. As its scope increased, it became simply "action on the case". The English Judicature Act passed 1873 through 1875 abolished the separate actions of trespass and trespass on the case.
In 1401, the English case Beaulieu v Finglam imposed strict liability for the escape of fire; additionally, strict liability was imposed for the release of cattle. Negligently handling fire was of particular importance in these societies given capacity for destruction and relatively limited firefighting resources. Liability for common carrier, which arose around 1400, was also emphasized in the medieval period. Unintentional injuries were relatively infrequent in the medieval period. As transportation improved and carriages became popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, however, collisions and carelessness became more prominent in court records. In general, scholars of England such as William Blackstone took a hostile view to litigation, and rules against champerty and maintenance and vexatious litigation existed. The restriction on assignment of a cause of action is a related rule based on public policy.
The right of victims to receive redress was regarded by later English scholars as one of the rights of Englishmen. Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England, which was published in the late 18th century, contained a volume on "private wrongs" as torts and even used the word tort in a few places.
United States influence
United States tort law was influenced by English law and Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England, with several state constitutions specifically providing for redress for torts in addition to reception statutes which adopted English law. However, tort law was viewed as relatively undeveloped by the mid-19th century; the first American treatise on torts was published in the 1860s but the subject became particularly established when Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr wrote on the subject in the 1880s. Holmes' writings have been described as the "first serious attempt in the common law world to give torts both a coherent structure and a distinctive substantive domain", although Holmes' summary of the history of torts has been critically reviewed.
The law of torts for various jurisdictions has developed independently. In the case of the United States, a survey of trial lawyers pointed to several modern developments, including strict liability for products based on Greenman v. Yuba Power Products, the limitation of various immunities (e.g. sovereign immunity, charitable immunity), comparative negligence, broader rules for admitting evidence, increased damages for emotional distress, and toxic torts and class action lawsuits. However, there has also been a reaction in terms of tort reform, which in some cases have been struck down as violating state constitutions, and federal preemption of state laws.
Modern torts are heavily affected by insurance and insurance law, as most cases are settled through claims adjustment rather than by trial, and are defended by insurance lawyers, with the insurance policy, a deep pocket limit, setting a ceiling on the possible payment.