Liability for Intentionally Caused Injuries

As a general rule, when somebody wrongfully causes an intentional injury to another person or to the property of another person, the person causing the injury will be liable for the injury or damage that results.

The wrongful infliction of injury is known as an intentional tort, "tort" being a legal term referring to a wrongful or unlawful act that results in injury.

At common law there were three intentional torts: assault, battery and unlawful imprisonment. Over time, additional intentional torts have been defined, including defamation and privacy-related torts.

Elements of an Intentional Tort

The basic elements of an intentional tort are as follows:

  1. Intentional Action: Taking action with the intention to cause an injury, or is of a nature that a reasonable person would regard as substantially certain to result in injury; and

  2. Injury: As a result of the action, an injury results to the person or property of another.

Many intentional torts involve contact with another person or object, causing injury. Contact may be direct, such as with a punch to the nose, or indirect, as with a bullet fired from a gun.

The harm need not be serious to support a claim of an intentional tort and, in some cases, the harm or affront may be to a person's dignity, as might occur if somebody spits in your face.

The injury caused by the intentional tort need not be the injury that was intended by the person committing the wrongful act. For example,

  • If I were to angrily push you, thinking that you would simply take a step backwards, and you instead fell and suffered a serious head injury, I would be responsible for the head injury even though I did not intend to cause any significant or lasting injury.
  • If a robber pulls a gun on somebody with a heart condition and that person has a heart attack as a result of their fear, the robber can be held liable for the heart attack even though they had no knowledge of the person's heart condition or intent to do more than create fear.

Types of Intentional Tort

Common intentional torts include:

  • Assault: An action that puts another person in reasonable fear of physical harm, based upon an aggressor's actions that suggest an intent to cause harm and the victim's reasonable perception that the aggressor has the ability to inflict harm.

  • Battery: Harmful or offensive contact with the body of another person.

  • Conversion: Lawfully taking or borrowing the property of another and then later converting it to your own use, inconsistent with the rights of the actual owner.

  • Defamation: Making false statements about another person that result in harm to the person. Defamation in oral form is often referred to as slander, while written defamation is often referred to as libel.

  • False Imprisonment: Also known as unlawful detention. Confining a person without the lawful authority to do so.

  • Fraud: Engaging in deceptive statements or acts, intending that others rely upon the deception, where somebody in fact does rely upon the deception and is injured as a result.

  • Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress: Engaging in extreme or outrageous conduct with the intent of causing harm, resulting in severe emotional distress or physical injury to another person.

  • Invasion of Privacy: Although privacy-based torts vary significantly between states, common examples include public disclosure of private facts, appropriation of another person's identity, and false light, the publication of information that is not false, but is presented in order to create a false or misleading impression about a person.

  • Trespass: The unauthorized entry upon or use of the property of another. Trespass may be to land, or it may be to items of personal property (trespass to chattel).

Defenses to an Intentional Tort

The principal defenses to a claim of intention tort are:

  • Consent: The person claiming injury consented to the act or contact. For example, if you voluntarily participate in a boxing match, you are consenting to having the other participant in the match hit you. Similarly, a fan sitting in a baseball stadium may be deemed to have consented to be hit by an errant fly ball.

  • Self-Defense: The person accused of causing an injury may claim that they took their action because they were in reasonable fear for their own safety, or the safety of others, and that their response was proportionate to the perceived threat of harm.

  • Necessity: The act alleged to have caused injury was taken in order to prevent a greater harm, the act was reasonable under the circumstances, and thus the act should be legally excused. A necessity defense might be raised by a rescuer if somebody were claiming injury due to being pulled out of their car, moments before the car exploded.

Intentional Torts vs. Negligence

The difference between an intentional tort and a negligence-based tort is based upon the state of mind of the person who commits the wrongful act.

  • In an intentional tort, the defendant is alleged to have intended to commit the act that caused injury, or is alleged to have acted with reckless indifference to the lives and safety of others;

  • In an act of negligence, the defendant is alleged to have acted in a manner that they knew or should have known could result in injury to others, even though they did not intend to cause an injury.

Intentional Torts vs. Crimes

Many intentional torts may also result in criminal charges against a defendant.

For example, the person who punches you in the nose may be prosecuted for that act, whether or not you attempt to recover damages through a civil lawsuit. If a person is convicted of a crime, the fact of that conviction can normally be used in a civil suit as presumptive evidence that the tort occurred.

Even if a defendant is acquitted of a crime, it may be possible for the victim or the victim's family to successfully prove a tort claim. As personal injury cases are decided with a lower burden of proof than criminal cases, a prior acquittal will not prevent a civil trial or create any presumption that the defendant is not responsible for the act or injury.

The most famous example of a civil lawsuit that followed a criminal acquittal is probably the O.J. Simpson murder case, in which the family of one of the victims, Ron Goldman, successfully sued O.J. Simpson in a wrongful death action even though he had been acquitted of the crime of murder.

Lawsuits for Intentionally Caused Injuries

Although a lawsuit for an intentionally caused injury may not be complicated to prove, it may nonetheless be difficult to recover damages. While injuries that result from acts of negligence will often be covered by insurance, most insurance policies exclude from coverage intentionally caused injuries.

Without insurance coverage, it becomes necessary to try to recover an award of damages from the defendant's personal assets, and many defendants who intentionally cause injuries have few or no assets that can be reached for that purpose.

Still, some defendants have assets that can be reached, some intentional acts may be covered by insurance, and sometimes it is possible to find a viable cause of action based on a negligence theory in order to make a recovery under the defendant's insurance. Sometimes it is possible to state a negligence action against a third party, such as negligent hiring and retention by an employer whose employee causes an injury while on the job, or negligent supervision by a parent whose minor child causes an injury.

It often makes sense to consult a personal injury lawyer to get help determining the best approach to recovering damages in an intentional tort case.

Copyright © 2016 Aaron Larson, All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article, except as otherwise authorized in writing by the author of the article you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.

This article was last reviewed or amended on Apr 13, 2018.