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Assault Torts and Injury Law

Assault means something very specific when it comes to torts and personal injury law. In tort law and personal injury claims, an assault refers to a wrongful attempt or threat of violence — not actual violence itself. This may surprise people, as physical touch does not have to occur. For example, threatening someone with a knife without actually making contact with them could be considered an act of assault.

This article provides a brief overview of assault in the civil law context of personal injury cases, not criminal cases. If you are an injured party seeking money for your claim, you can discuss your civil case with a personal injury attorney.

Assault vs. Battery

Most people think of “assault" as referring to a violent attack. For example, you might hear that “the gang assaulted a rival gang member on the corner of the street" or “the marines began their assault on the enemy position atop the hill." Violence, or at least some sort of physical contact, is generally implied in the term assault.

However, while state laws sometimes differ, assault torts generally don't require that physical contact actually occur. Instead, it's enough that they involve an intentional attempt or threat (intentional acts) to inflict injury upon a person. The person being threatened must reasonably believe they will suffer harm or offensive contact with their assailant, who must have an apparent, present ability to cause the harm.

Notice the words “attempt" and “threat" above. In tort law, assault does not require actual touching or violence against the victim. We use another term for touching or contact: “battery."

These are two distinct but related torts. Just as someone may commit an assault without a battery, someone also may commit a battery without an assault. For instance, a surprise attack from behind resulting in physical injury may be committed without causing the initial fear of injury.

Assault and Battery

You may have heard the term “assault and battery," and in fact, these terms often appear together. This refers to a situation where both an assault (attempting to injure or threatening to injure) and a battery (actually touching someone) occur in the same incident. Often the assault occurs immediately after the battery: Right before Fred shot Jon, Jon saw Fred aiming the loaded rifle at him.

Personal injury lawsuits involving physical harm may include claims for both assault and battery. If a battery (forceful contact) is traumatic enough to cause serious injuries leading to death, the lawsuit may even include a claim for wrongful death.

If a reasonable person may be convinced that an assailant was merely acting in self-defense, they may not be liable for assault and battery (or either of the two).

History of Assault Torts

The definition of assault developed in common law. This means that courts developed a working definition over the course of centuries, long before the legislatures passed statutes defining civil assault. Modern assault statutes closely reflect this older common-law definition.

An assault can be both a crime and a tort. Therefore, an assailant may face both criminal and civil liability.

Assault can result in criminal charges — but our focus in this article is suing in civil court. Do not confuse the intentional tort of assault with criminal assault. Assault can also have a different meaning in criminal law, where it sometimes includes elements of battery (depending on the laws of your state).

criminal assault conviction may result in a fine, imprisonment, or both. In a civil assault case, the victim may be entitled to monetary damages from the assailant.

Civil Assault Cases: Damages

Separate from any criminal prosecution for assault, a victim may pursue civil damages for injuries caused by it. After a determination by a judge or jury that an assault was committed, the next step is to determine what compensation is appropriate.

Three types of damages may be awarded:

  1. Compensatory Damages: These include things such as pain and suffering, medical expenses, lost wages, and even emotional distress. They are meant to compensate you for the injury and medical bills you'll otherwise be on the hook for paying.
  2. Nominal Damages: Nominal damages act as an acknowledgment that a person has suffered a technical invasion of rights. They are awarded in cases where no actual injury or harm has resulted, but one's legal rights have been violated nonetheless.
  3. Punitive Damages: Punitive damages sometimes may be awarded in particularly egregious circumstances, as a way to punish the wrongdoer further. Punitive damages go above and beyond compensatory damages because they are intended to punish a wrongdoer for acting with great malice or reckless disregard for life.

Have a Lawyer Review Your Assault Claim

Assault can range from the threat of violence (causing apprehension or fear of harm), to unwanted touching (such as groping), to an act of violence. Regardless of the circumstances, you and your loved ones have the right to seek compensation for any injuries — physical or emotional — that result from an assault.

Get in touch with a local personal injury lawyer to have them review your case today. They can provide you with legal advice and help you take legal action through a civil lawsuit. A personal injury law office can fight with insurance companies and get you a settlement for serious injuries.

Keep in mind that personal injury cases must be filed within a certain time limit (known as a “statute of limitations") that varies depending on the laws of your state — so act quickly.

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