Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Wrongful Definition:

An act or omission that exposes a person to civil or criminal liability.

In Willens, a case where wrongful discharge was at issue (employment law), Justice Cave of the Kansas City Court of Appeals adopted these words to define wrongful:

"... the infringement of some right, and may result from disobedience to lawful authority.

"The word wrongfully (means) an act done in a wrong manner; unjustly; in a manner contrary to the moral law or to justice".

The encyclopedia of American law, the Corpus Juris Secundum (§101), proposes this statement of the law, circa 1958:

"Wrongful is defined as meaning injurious, heedless, reckless, unjust, unfair, unlawful (and) negligent and it is used to describe any act which is unlawful or unauthorized, or any other act of this description which is a civil wrong, or without right."

In McLean v Pettigrew, Mr. Justice Tashereau of the Supreme Court of Canada noted these words, borrowed from Dicey's Conflict of Laws (5th Ed.) and in the context of a conflict of laws, concluding that wrongful means an act that is either actionable as a tort or punishable pursuant to the criminal law:

"An act done in a foreign country is a tort, and actionable as such in England, if it is both (1) wrongful, i.e., non-justifiable, according to the law of the foreign country where it was done; and (2) wrongful, i.e., actionable as a tort, according to English law, or, in other words, is an act which, if done in England, would be a tort."

In Felix v Dental Council, the House of Lords reviewed the word wrongful and proposed a circular distinction that only a bored group of lawyers could come up with:

  • Where the conduct to which the word was applied was itself wrongful, the word wrongfully added nothing.
  • On the other hand, if the conduct was otherwise innocent, the addition of the word wrongfully may be regarded as imputing to that conduct an unspecified degree of culpability of an undefined character, ranging (in that case) from mere carelessness to fraud or dishonesty.


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