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What Were You Thinking, Will Smith?

By Steven Ellison, Esq. on March 30, 2022 1:55 PM

On March 27, the 94th Academy Awards made history in dramatic fashion. After Chris Rock joked about Jada Pinkett Smith’s hairstyle, Will Smith charged the stage and slapped Rock across the face in front of millions of viewers.

While the incident didn’t prevent Smith from receiving the Best Actor nod for his role in “King Richard,” he theoretically could face other consequences under California law (the incident occurred in Los Angeles) and the American Academy of Motion Picture’s conduct code.

Surreal as this all seems.

Yes, Will Smith Likely Committed Criminal Battery

In California, walking up to someone and slapping them in the face is the crime of battery. To establish battery, a prosecutor would have to prove two elements beyond a reasonable doubt:

  • Smith willfully and unlawfully touched Rock in a harmful or offensive manner
  • Smith did not act in self-defense, in defense of someone else, or while reasonably disciplining a child

In this case, Smith is on video walking up and slapping Rock. He didn’t hit him accidentally. And while Smith may believe his actions were justified to protect his wife’s honor, you can only use force in defense of others if it is reasonably necessary to prevent them from physical harm. A prosecutor would be able to establish that Smith committed criminal battery.

The penalty for battery in California, a misdemeanor, is a fine of up to $2,000, up to six months in county jail, or both. So Smith, theoretically at least, could be facing a small fine and jail time.

Neither seems likely. The Los Angeles Police Department confirmed that Chris Rock declined to press charges at the time. We should note, however, that he can still change his mind.

Civil Battery

California also provides a civil claim against the perpetrator of a battery. If Rock wanted to sue Smith, he would need to establish four elements:

  • Smith intentionally performed an act — the Slap — that resulted in harmful or offensive contact with Rock
  • Rock did not consent to the Slap
  • Rock was harmed or offended by the Slap
  • A reasonable person in Rock’s position would have been harmed or offended by the Slap

Smith’s problem in a civil case is that millions of television viewers watched him walk up on stage, pull his arm back, and slap Rock across the face on live TV. This video evidence is compelling.

Damages for Civil Battery

Rock would likely win a battery lawsuit against Smith. Generally, the plaintiff in a battery case can recover the following compensatory damages:

  • Economic damages: (e.g., loss of income, medical bills, and any other out-of-pocket expenses)
  • Non-economic damages (e.g., pain and suffering)

Rock probably didn’t sustain any economic damages and, while the Slap looked like it may have hurt, Rock shook it off and continued with the show. Rock’s compensatory damages are likely minimal (although you can never be sure when it comes to pain-and-suffering awards).

Where Smith could theoretically suffer financially, however, is with punitive damages. The intent of punitive damages is to punish a wrongdoer for particularly shocking conduct and to deter others from behaving in the same way.

Many would say that the Slap was outrageous, and society generally doesn’t want people walking around slapping other people. But while punitive damages may be legally justified in this case, Rock, having declined to press criminal charges, seems unlikely to bring a civil lawsuit.

Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Discipline

If Smith suffers any consequences for the Slap, they most likely will come from the Academy. In a statement, the Academy condemned Smith’s actions and said that it launched a formal review of the incident.

The Academy’s standards prohibit “physical contact that is uninvited and, in the situation, inappropriate and unwelcome, or coercive sexual attention.” Also prohibited is “intimidation, stalking, abusive or threatening behavior, or bullying.” Smith clearly violated these standards.

The Academy could take disciplinary action. That can include revocation of Academy awards or honors, public or private reprimand, and loss of eligibility for future Oscars. It seems peculiar to even contemplate, but the Academy could theoretically strip Smith of his Best Actor award and eliminate him from future Oscar consideration.

All because of the Slap.

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