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Defense of Property and Intentional Torts

You thought it was bad enough when someone tried to steal your backpack, and you had to chase them down, breaking their arm in the process. But now, the thief is suing you in a personal injury case for battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Thankfully, there are a number of affirmative defenses at your disposal, including defense of property.

Affirmative defenses are common defenses that protect a defendant's actions from incurring liability in a civil case. But whether you will successfully assert these defenses in a civil action depends on the laws of your state and the strength of your argument. Read on to learn about defense of property and intentional torts.

What Are Intentional Torts?

An intentional tort is a civil wrong committed by a person who intended to act in a way that caused harm to a person or property. Some common tort law examples involving intentional acts are:

  • Assault and battery
  • False imprisonment
  • Defamation
  • Trespass to land (or trespass to chattels)

These types of intentional tort claims are different from other torts, such as those based on:

In these other torts, the wrongdoing is more accidental. Negligence torts in particular, such as malpractice or wrongful death, usually involve a lack of reasonable care—not purposeful actions—that lead to harm.

Affirmative Defenses

If you've been accused of wrongdoing, perhaps don't deny the allegations. But you might have some reason that justifies or excuses your conduct. This is called an affirmative defense. While a plaintiff generally has the burden of proof for their bodily injury or car accident claims, a defendant has the burden of proof for their affirmative defenses.

For example, to be relieved of all or some legal liability for your actions, you would have to prove you were acting in defense of others. Other common affirmative defenses include self-defense, public necessity, consent, and defense of property. Affirmative defenses can not only be used in tort cases, but also in the context of criminal charges and criminal law.

What Is Defense of Property?

Let's say you're a defendant sued for an intentional tort, such as battery. You may be forced to admit that your offensive contact caused the plaintiff's injuries. But you may be able to argue that your so-called wrongful act was justified to prevent your property from invasion. In the case of real estate, that could mean protecting your home as a property owner. In the case of personal property or property damage, you may have acted to prevent your purse from being taken or destroyed.

For example, if an intruder is attempting to break in through the window of your bedroom and you hit them with a bat, they might try to sue you for battery. Since they'd be suing in a civil case, they would have to prove by a preponderance of the evidence (a more than 50% likelihood) that you intended to harm them.

Here, among other potential defenses, you could argue that you shouldn't be held liable because you were defending your property from intrusion. If a jury finds that you acted with reasonable force, the injured party may not be able to recover any compensatory damages. In other words, if a reasonable person in your shoes would have acted similarly to protect their legal rights, then you shouldn't have to make the thief whole for their medical expenses or pain and suffering.

How Far Can You Go to Defend Your Property?

You're probably still wondering what types of actions are acceptable when it comes to defending your home or personal property. The use of force in defense of property is more limited than it is in defense of self or others. Each state (jurisdiction) has its own laws regarding the amount of force you can use, but state statutes often use terms like “reasonable" or “proportionate" to describe the type of force allowed.

Generally, you can use more force to defend your home (and in some states, your car). Certain states even allow for deadly force in these situations. This is one version of what's known as the castle doctrine. With personal property, you can usually use a reasonable degree of non-deadly force to retain or regain your property when someone is attempting to take it from you directly. However, you can't trespass into your neighbor's house or run at them with a knife in order to retrieve the stereo speakers they've refused to return to you for weeks.

Keep in mind that the facts of each case vary. In some situations, certain behavior may be justified. In other circumstances, your affirmative defenses might not be reasonable, and a jury might find your actions so reckless that they may even award punitive damages (punishment money) to the plaintiff. Consulting with a personal injury attorney can help you determine the strength of your defenses.

Get Help Defending Yourself by Learning More About Defense of Property

The defense of property argument is an important tool when defending yourself against a tort lawsuit. However, the right to defend your property is not absolute. Each state has its own laws specifying the amount of acceptable force. State courts have interpreted those laws to further define your rights and obligations in these situations.

Be prepared for your defense by contacting a local injury defense attorney with experience with the defense of property argument. A personal injury lawyer specializing in these types of arguments can help you put up an effective defense in your case.

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