• Personal Injuries: Battery & Assault

    Personal Injuries: Battery & Assault

    While most personal injury claims stem from accidents, it also possible to make a claim for intentional wrongdoing. Broadly speaking, intentional torts are those acts that are an intentional interference with the person. Intent is a key issue in these cases because people are generally less liable for negligent harms than intentional harms. There are many different kinds of intentional torts, but battery and assault are the most relevant to personal injury. Because of the particular nature of battery and assault the tortfeasor is generally held liable for any injuries arising from their conduct.

    Intent is a state of mind, without which a person can not be found liable for battery or assault. A person acts with intent when they conduct themselves with purpose to achieve a specified result. The specific desired outcome of conduct, the intent, is what makes particular conduct tortious. If Tom swings a golf club desiring to hit Jerry’s head, then Tom is acting intentionally. Even if Tom misses, or even if there was a high likelihood that he would miss, the act is still intentional. It is important to note that not all intentional conduct is tortious, but all assaults and batteries are intentional.

    A person can also be liable for intentional torts if they acted knowingly. A person acts knowingly if they know to a substantial certainty that a particular result would occur. Thus even if a person does not actually intend to achieve a particular result, but they are nearly certain that it will occur then they are just as liable as the intentional actor. Let’s say that Jerry, wanting revenge for Tom’s golf-club attack, drives his car through a crowd of people to mow down Tom. He did not act with the purpose of hitting the innocent bystanders, but by aiming his car at Tom he knew to a substantial certainty that they would be hit.

    It is important to not confuse motive and intent. Motives are the reason why someone acted in a particular way. A person may have a good motive, but that would not prevent an act from being tortious. A person with a bad motive may be liable for punitive damages for their bad acts, but bad motive alone does not make conduct tortious. Motives are often irrelevant in the liability phase of tort claims like battery and assault. A plaintiff only has to show that the defendant acted intentionally or knowingly, i.e. that the conduct was not accidental.

    It is also important to note the difference between negligence and intentional torts like assault or battery. Negligence is essentially harm that arises from unreasonable behavior. Unreasonable behavior is failing to take reasonable precautions to avoid creating an unreasonable risk of harm to others. One of the key elements of negligence is creating an unreasonable risk of harm. There is no risk of harm involved in intentional torts– the actor is behaving purposely to bring about certain harm. A negligent actor only creates a risk and they are held liable for the manifestation of it. Even a person who intentionally chances a risk of harm is not acting intentionally toward an injured party. There is no such thing as a negligent battery.

    Battery is the tort of offensive touching. A person is liable for battery when they:
    1) Intentionally
    2) cause (directly or indirectly)
    3) harmful or offensive contact.

    Intent is the first and primary element of battery, but battery does require more. A person can only be liable for battery if their intent was to cause harmful or offensive contact. The direct or indirect causation element allows a plaintiff to allege battery where the defendant has either made contact with their hands or other immediate instrumentality like a weapon, or through a series of intermediaries. Lets say Tom, upset at being run over by Jerry, intentionally cuts down a tree so that it falls on Jerry. In this instance Tom has intentionally, but indirectly, caused harmful contact and is liable for battery.

    What constitutes harmful or offensive contact is wide ranging. Broadly speaking, harmful or offensive contact is essentially contact that a plaintiff wishes to avoid. Liability for harmful contact arises in a fairly obvious manner, namely that the contact causes a harm. The extent of liability is expanded on below, but briefly put a defendant is liable for minimal or even unintended harms if any harm was intended at all.

    Offensive contact does not mean conduct that causes mere irritability or only constitutes an annoyance. Liability for offensive contact arises if the contact is an affront to a person’s integrity or dignity. What constitutes an offensive contact is based both on the plaintiff’s actual desire to not be touched and whether a reasonable person would feel that such touching was an affront to dignity. This rule essentially limits a plaintiff’s ability to claim any and all touching to be offensive, and it is expressed in the various exceptions where social usage of space clashes with personal rights (e.g. being jostled in a crowded subway is unlikely to be considered a battery, even if the plaintiff finds it offensive).

    Contact in is also not limited to the direct touching of the plaintiff by the defendant. A defendant can also be liable for battery if they make harmful contact with objects that are closely associated with the plaintiff. Close association is construed fairly broadly; tugging on clothes, smacking a cafeteria tray, or grabbing an item from someone’s hand are all considered contact. If Tom rams his boat into Jerry’s boat while Jerry is on it, Tom is likely liable for battery.

    Assault is a cousin to battery and allows a plaintiff to claim a sort of psychological injury for being put into fear of harmful or offensive contact. A defendant is liable for assault if they:

    1) Intentionally
    2) act to cause
    3) harmful or offensive contact, and
    4) the plaintiff is placed in the imminent apprehension thereof.

    As you can see, assault is very similar to battery. The ‘intent’ and ‘harmful or offensive’ elements are essentially identical to those of battery claims.

    Assault is different because it does not require contact, but it is limited to conduct that places the plaintiff in the imminent apprehension of such contact. Apprehension means actually being aware of the possibility. Tom is only liable for battery if he sneaks up on Jerry and hits him with a baseball bat. Imminence requires the threat of contact to be concurrent with the apprehension. Future threats of violence or unwanted contact are not sufficient. If Jerry tells Tom he intends to hit him with a baseball bat it is not assault. If Jerry runs toward Tom swinging his baseball bat and issuing threats then it is assault (and if the bat makes contact with Tom then it is both assault and battery). Making direct threats can also be assault. If Jerry mugs Tom at gunpoint and says “your money or your life” then it is assault (Jerry has no right to either).

    In any event, a defendant who assaults or batters a person is liable for all the harms that flow from their tortious contact. As said above, a person who makes harmful or offensive contact with another is liable for any and all harms that arise from the contact, even if the harm was unintended or unforeseeable. Lets say that Jerry has a medical condition that makes his bones very week. If Tom gives Jerry a little shove and causes all of his bones to break then Tom is liable for all of that harm even though he only intended a little shove.

    This rule also applies to other unintended consequences. An intentional tortfeasor is responsible for harms that befall third parties unintentionally affected by the tortious conduct. If Tom swings his golf club at Jerry’s head but misses and hits Roger instead then Tom liable for an assault against Jerry and battery against Roger. If Roger is instantly killed and his mother, who is nearby and watching the altercation, suffers a heart attack and dies from the shock then Tom could likely be liable for her death as well.
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