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Self Defense, Defense of Others, and Intentional Torts

The law grants us the right to defend ourselves and our loved ones in certain situations. But what happens when self-defense results in you being sued for personal injury? Luckily, there may be legal defenses available to you.

The law in the United States has evolved through court decisions and civil code. Law based on court precedent is known as common law. Laws legislated into civil codes are known as statutory laws. Torts and self-defense laws in the United States are rooted in common law.

Read on to learn more about intentional tort law, self-defense, and the defense of others.

What Are Intentional Torts?

A "tort" is a personal injury caused by a civil, rather than a criminal, wrong. Tort claims (causes of action) are brought in civil cases and do not involve criminal law. An act that leads to a tort case could catch the eye of a government prosecutor. A county district attorney or a city prosecutor can bring criminal charges relating to an underlying tort action. But in the civil context where a private party sues another in trial court, a plaintiff seeks money.

While criminal lawsuits might involve prison time and fines, civil tort cases are about monetary compensatory damages for injuries. The burden of proof in a civil personal injury case is a preponderance of the evidence. This means the plaintiff in a tort case has to prove that their allegations are more likely than not to have occurred.

Tort lawsuits can arise from a variety of events, including:

  • Car wrecks
  • Personal property (chattel) damage
  • Slip-and-fall accidents
  • Dog bites
  • Defamation (harming someone's reputation)
  • Wrongful death (negligence that leads to someone's death)

If the person committing the tort intended to perform that harmful action, an "intentional tort" results. The classic example of an intentional tort is a punch to the face. That's because it's usually a purposeful act of physical force that results in bodily harm.

Legally, a few types of intentional tort claims:

  • Battery (offensive contact causing injury)
  • Assault (threat or attempt of harm)
  • False imprisonment (unlawful restraint of a person)
  • Intentional infliction of emotional distress (placing someone under emotional stress)

There are affirmative defenses available to intentional torts. An affirmative defense is a shield raised by a defendant to negate liability for an alleged wrong they committed. For example, you may have a legal defense that justifies your actions if the intentional tort occurred while you were acting in defense of yourself or another person.

Defense to an Intentional Tort: Self-Defense

You don't have to stand idly if another person is harming you. You have the right to take reasonable steps to prevent injury to yourself. You can raise self-defense as a defense to criminal acts and to some intentional torts.

Suppose a heated argument breaks out between Adam and Brad, and Adam yells, "Brad, I'm going to punch you in the face!" and pulls back his fist to hit Brad. Brad may defend himself by punching Adam first. Brad could have reasonably anticipated that Adam would harm him. If Adam is injured and attempts to sue Brad for the intentional tort of battery, Brad can claim self-defense because he was protecting himself in response to Adam's tort of assault.

However, Brad only has the right to use appropriate and proportionate force in defending himself. For example, suppose Adam tells Brad he's going to punch him and pulls back his fist, and in response, Brad repeatedly bashes Adam with a brick until Adam is unconscious. That may be considered an excessive amount of force that did not match the threat level. In that situation, self-defense may not be available to Brad as a defense.

Also, once the danger passes, the privilege of self-defense disappears. In other words, self-defense will not excuse a revenge attack. For example, suppose Adam punches Brad or threatens to punch him, and the following day after stewing angrily all night, Brad finds Adam and punches him in the face. In this situation, Brad will likely not be able to invoke self-defense because the danger of being harmed by Adam had passed long before he struck back.

Defense to an Intentional Tort: Defense of Others

A similar defense to intentional torts is the defense of others. You may use force to defend another person from harm if you reasonably believe that intervention is justified and that the person being aided could have had a legitimate self-defense claim.

Like with self-defense, defense of others requires you to use only reasonable and proportionate force. An example is if Brad sees that Adam will immediately hit Chris. Brad can use a proportionate amount of force in defending Chris and invoke the defense of others if Adam ends up suing him for an intentional tort.

However, to invoke this defense, you must have physically witnessed the attack rather than merely heard about it. For example, Chris told Brad that Adam had assaulted him. If Brad then punched Adam, he would be unlikely to be able to invoke the privilege of defense of others.

The Act of Defense Must Be Reasonable

While self-defense is recognized in some form by every state, jurisdictions vary on the extent of its application. In particular, states might differ on what they consider to be "reasonable" in the act of defense. For instance, bringing a knife to a fistfight might be considered unreasonable, excessive force. But other factors, like the parties' physical size and circumstances, play into determining whether a defendant has used reasonable force.

Defense of property, defense of others, and self-defense must all be reasonable. That means you have to "defend" as a reasonable person would. Some states will find it reasonable to stand your ground and use deadly force under certain circumstances. Other jurisdictions, especially those that do not follow common law, might require you to flee without putting up much of a fight.

A property owner or homeowner who inflicts serious bodily injury on a third person may not be justified in using deadly force. For example, if someone is stealing a box off your porch, you shouldn't shoot the thief just to defend your property. But if that person has already entered your house or threatened to kill you with a knife, some states might consider it fair game to get more aggressive. Be careful: Brandishing your gun in self-defense could mean you'll be criminally prosecuted in other states.

Check out FindLaw's article on Stand Your Ground laws for more information. FindLaw also has resources on other common defenses, including the public necessity defense and the private necessity defense. Necessity defenses are used in different circumstances, usually involving property.

Get Legal Help With Your Case

If you are a defendant in a personal injury case, a variety of legal defenses may be available to you. Speak with an experienced personal injury defense attorney to better understand your legal rights. This kind of personal injury attorney specializes in protecting the rights of defendants who have been sued.

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