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Transferred Intent in Personal Injury Law

As you pass two people on the street, one of them tosses a bottle at the other out of anger. They miss the intended victim and instead hit you on the head. Is the thrower liable for your injuries even if they didn't intend to hurt you? The answer is most likely yes. The thrower's intent to commit a tort (civil wrong) has been transferred under the transferred intent doctrine. Read on to learn about transferred intent in personal injury law.

What Is Transferred Intent?

Transferred intent is a legal theory that can apply to both civil tort law and criminal law. Civil torts are wrongful acts that result in personal injury.

In an intentional tort case, you are required to show that the defendant intended to commit the act that caused you to suffer. In criminal law, there is a similar legal doctrine known as mens rea. You're required to show that the defendant specifically intended to harm you. You can file a lawsuit under the intentional tort claim as long as you can show that:

  • The defendant intended the alleged act
  • The harmful results were certain to occur

If your claim is successful, you may recover compensation for your medical expenses and any resulting pain and suffering. But can you bring a civil lawsuit if you were not the intended victim of the act that harmed you? What if the defendant's bad aim accidentally caused harm that was not intended for you specifically? This is where the doctrine of transferred intent comes into play.

In transferred intent cases, a person is liable when they cause:

  • Intended harm to a person other than the one intended
  • Different harm (different tort) to an intended person
  • Different harm to an unintended victim who is a person other than the intended target

In short, intent can be transferred from “Person A" to “Person B." In personal injury cases, transferred intent applies to the following types of torts:

A defendant is legally responsible under the doctrine of transferred intent when they know or should have reasonably known that their intentional act would harm someone, irrespective of who the intended target was.

Higher courts, including appellate courts and the Supreme Court, also apply this legal doctrine in cases involving criminal law. However, this article only focuses on civil contexts where an injury lawsuit is between private parties. By contrast, criminal cases are brought by government prosecutors when a crime has occurred.

Defenses to Intentional Torts

Depending on the type of tort claim, there are several defenses that may apply. These defenses allow the defendant to avoid liability for their conduct. Defenses to intentional torts may sometimes be justified even in a transferred-intent context.

One of the most common tort defenses is self-defense. The defendant is not liable for reasonable conduct meant to protect oneself from a plaintiff's attack. If the plaintiff started a fight or harmed the defendant first, the defendant likely won't be liable if they responded with legally justified force. That limitation in liability carries over in a transferred-intent situation.

Another common tort defense is consent. If the plaintiff consented to the defendant's conduct, the plaintiff cannot sue the defendant for the consented conduct. For example, if you consented to participate in a boxing match, you cannot sue the other person for getting hurt during the match. If there are multiple people inside a boxing ring, your consent to participate in the dangerous sport will apply even in situations involving transferred intent.

Other defenses may apply, including assumption of risk, defense of property, and necessity. To learn about these defenses, check out FindLaw's article on the Necessity Defense.

Exception: Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress

There's another type of intentional tort, called intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED), that may be relevant to your case. IIED refers to intentional outrageous conduct that causes the victim emotional trauma.

The transferred intent doctrine does not apply to intentional infliction of emotional distress, except in some states that recognize the following situations:

  • A victim's immediate family member is hurt by the defendant's conduct while they are a bystander
  • A victim is present at the scene of the injury, and the victim's presence was known to the defendant

Get Your Transferred Intent Questions Answered by an Attorney

Dealing with legal theories like transferred intent in personal injury can be difficult and complicated. If you have a transferred intent issue, consider talking to an experienced personal injury attorney before filing a lawsuit.

An experienced attorney can give you legal advice and guide you in establishing liability in your injury case. A personal injury lawyer can make a big difference in the success of your claim and the amount of damages you recover for your injuries.

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