“Tortious interference” is a wonderfully legal-sounding phrase to remember if you ever go to a Halloween party dressed as an attorney. It is also useful if you own a tortoise-shell cat.

But wrongfully getting in the way of someone else’s business or contracts can be serious wrongdoing. Whether someone commits it against you or accuses you of committing it against them, tortious interference is capable of doing a lot of damage to you or your company.

Courts are usually okay with business winners and losers

Imagine you are a business that contracts with a supplier, expecting that supplier to fulfill the contract’s terms. Or, for that matter, imagine you and the supplier have had a long-term, mutually profitable relationship and you rely on it for your financial well-being.

Another company is usually free to also sign contracts with “your” supplier, even if it means the supplier chooses to break your contract or disappoint your expectations.

Expectations and contracts are not always ours to break

Tortious interference is an exception. Maybe the other company stole your supplier with the intent of damaging or closing your business. Maybe through blackmail, threats or other “offers they can’t refuse,” the other company somehow forced your supplier to end your contract. In such cases, you (and/or your supplier) might be able to take the other company to court with a civil lawsuit alleging tortious interference.

So, to decide the case, a court would try to understand the company’s behavior, their interests and motive, the relationships between all the parties, and what contract law and society in general really need to see protected in this instance.

The long history and high profile of tortious interference

The first and possibly most famous case of tortious interference came in 1853 from England. A famous singer signed a contract to perform a string of shows at a London theater. But before the series began, a competing theater stole her away by offering her more money to break the first contract.

The first theater sued the second on the grounds that it had wrongfully enticed the singer to fail in fulfilling her contract. The suit succeeded and the second theater had to pay.

Courts have customarily upheld the tortious interference idea ever since, including in landmark cases like the multi-billion-dollar Pennzoil v. Texaco suit of the 1980s. Possibly, the public most often sees claims of tortious interference when they involve sports and entertainment deals.