In the context of criminal law, "assault and battery" are typically components of a single offense. In tort law, "assault" and "battery" are separate, with an assault being an act which creates fear of an imminent battery, and the battery being an unlawful touching. Assault and battery are intentional torts, meaning that the defendant actually intends to put the plaintiff in fear of being battered, or intends to wrongfully touch the plaintiff. The wrongful touching need not inflict physical injury, and may be indirect (such as contact through a thrown stone, or spitting). This article describes the law of assault and battery as it is commonly applied, although the law may vary in any specific jurisdiction.
An assault invoves:
- An intentional, unlawful threat or "offer" to cause bodily injury to another by force;
- Under circumstances which create in the other person a well-founded fear of imminent peril;
- Where there exists the apparent present ability to carry out the act if not prevented.
Note that an assault can be completed even if there is no actual contact with the plaintiff, and even if the defendant had no actual ability to carry out the apparent threat. For example, a defendant who points a realistic toy gun at the plaintiff may be liable for assault, even though the defendant was fifty feet away from the plaintiff and had no actual ability to inflict harm from that distance.
A battery is the willful or intentional touching of a person against that person’s will by another person, or by an object or substance put in motion by that other person. Please note that an offensive touching can constitute a battery even if it does not cause injury, and could not reasonably be expected to cause injury. A defendant who emphatically pokes the plaintiff in the chest with his index finger to emphasize a point may be culpable for battery (although the damages award that results may well be nominal). A defendant who spits on a plaintiff, even though there is little chance that the spitting will cause any injury other than to the plaintiff's dignity, has committed a battery.
In order to be liable for an assault or battery, the defendant must lack privilege to assault or batter the plaintiff. The following are examples of "privilege":
Where a defendant has the plaintiff's consent to commit an act of assault or battery, the plaintiff may not later bring a lawsuit. The most typical context for consent occurs in sports. The intentional foul in basketball, or the tackle in football, are an anticipated part of the game. While it may be possible for certain conduct to be so far outside the realm of what is reasonable to nonetheless give rise to a tort - for example, chopping an opposing player off at the knees in a football game, an action which is known to have a very high probability of causing serious and even crippling injury - rule violations which are part of standard play are unlikely to support a legal action. Consent also exists in the context of authorized medical or surgical procedures.
A police officer is privileged to apply the threat of force, or if necessary to apply actual force, in order to effect a lawful arrest. A defendant who suffers injury as the result of reasonable force exerted by the police to effect a lawful arrest will not be able to sustain a lawsuit against the arresting officers for assault or battery.
A person who is assaulted may use such reasonable force as may be necessary, or which at the time reasonably appears to be necessary, to protect himself or herself from bodily harm. An act of self-defense must ordinarily be proportionate to the threat. That is, if you believe a person is going to spit on you, depending upon the context it may be reasonable to push the person away, but it would not be reasonable to hit the person with a baseball bat.
A plaintiff may be expected to withdraw from the threat, if possible, before engaging in forcible resistance. However, if the plaintiff is in his own home and the defendant is not a member of the plaintiff's household, a plaintiff will typically not be required to further withdraw from the threat once the plaintiff has retreated to his own home.
Defense of Others
Defense of others is similar to self-defense, and usually occurs in the context of one family member protecting another. Some jurisdictions permit a defendant to assert defense of others, even where the defendant is mistaken as to the existence of a threat, as long as the mistake is reasonable. Other jurisdictions do not permit this defense unless there was an actual threat or battery against the other person.
Voluntary (Mutual) Combat
Where the plaintiff voluntarily engages in a fight with defendant for the sake of fighting and not as a means of self-defense, the plaintiff may not recover for an assault or battery unless the defendant beat the plaintiff excessively or used unreasonable force. If two people voluntarily enter a brawl, it is unlikely that either will be able to sue the other. However, if one falls, and the other takes advantage of the situation by kicking him and causing injury, that act may well be considered to be an excessive use of force which would support a cause of action.
Defense of Property
Many jurisdictions allow the use of some amount of threat or force by a person who is seeking to protect his own property from theft or damage. In most jurisdictions, there is no privilege to use force that may cause death or serious injury against trespassers unless the trespass itself threatens death or serious injury. Please note that there are some jurisdictions with extraordinarily broad laws, permitting the use of significant and even deadly force to prevent the theft of property. (Leaving aside the moral issues of using physical force to defend property, be sure that you know your local laws before applying force in such a situation.)
Some people are legally authorized to apply physical restraint or battery in order to discipline others. For example, in most jurisdictions, parents are legally authorized to apply reasonable physical discipline upon their children. In some jurisdictions, school teachers are permitted to apply a certain level of physical restraint or discipline against students. The staff of a mental health facility may have legal authority to apply reasonable restraint to prevent a patient from causing harm to himself, to others, or to property.
Most jurisdictions grant merchants the right to apply reasonable force to detain shoplifters, or other persons who the merchant reasonably believes are attempting to steal the merchant's property.
Words alone, no matter how insulting or provocative, do not justify an assault or battery against the person who utters the words.