What Is Assault? - Definition of an Intentional Tort

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  • 0:05 Tort Law on Assault
  • 2:56 Assault and Battery
  • 4:27 Aggravated Assault
  • 5:53 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kat Kadian-Baumeyer

Kat has a Master of Science in Organizational Leadership and Management and teaches Business courses.

Assault is a tort and occurs when one person intentionally places anther in a state of fear. There are three types of assault: simple assault, assault and battery and aggravated assault. Each type of assault is intended to instill fear and may even involve physical pain against another person.

Tort Law on Assault

Two men walk outside the bar... this may sound like the beginning of a funny joke, but if this leads to one of the men pulling a sucker punch on the other, it is no laughing matter. It is assault. The interesting thing about assault is that it does not have to lead to physical harm. It can be instilling imminent fear of physical harm against another person.

Assault is a tort, and means, in common law, that someone did wrong to another person. Under tort law, it is a civil action but is also considered a criminal act. For our purposes, we will focus on the tort of assault. Under tort law, there is a plaintiff, who is the injured party, and a tortfeasor, who essentially is the defendant in the action.

A plaintiff in a tort of assault case can sue for pecuniary damages, like money or compensation for injury and any loss suffered as a result of the injury. Time lost from work because of medical treatment and court appearances may also qualify as damages.

Let's go back to the gentlemen at the bar. If the two men exchanged a few off-color words, an assault did not take place. Merely exchanging choice words without one person feeling fearful of physical violence is not enough to prove intent to harm. However, if those choice words included direct threats, like 'I'm going to kick your butt,' or 'You're going to eat a knuckle sandwich,' this may qualify as assault.

Certain elements must be present to prove an assault occurred:

  • The plaintiff perceived immediate physical contact with the defendant
  • Plaintiff had suspicion that he was in imminent danger
  • The actions of the defendant, or tortfeasor, were intentional, not accidental

In other words, the plaintiff must prove that tortious conduct occurred and that the conduct was exacted against him and resulted in some type of damage.

Now keep in mind, an important element of assault is intent. It must be demonstrated that the tortfeasor acted in a purposeful way to cause harm to another person. We will rely on a classic example to demonstrate intent. If a person was to pull a knife on another person, regardless of whether the knife was made of clay or steel, this action is considered an assault, even in the absence of threatening words.

Conversely, if a person yells, 'I'm going to stab you,' and no knife is present, this may not be considered assault because without a knife, there can be no real intent to cause harm at that moment. Sometimes a simple assault can lead to a more heinous action, like physical violence.

Assault and Battery

What happens when a threat turns to a violent act? We know that assault is the lesser crime because no physical action took place. However, when assault is coupled with physical harm, like a punch or a kick, the offense is considered not one, but two torts.

Assault and battery is the combining of both threats and physical action together, which places another person in imminent fear and then in physical contact with the assailing person. The elements for assault and battery are the same with the addition of a few more that involve:

  • Physical touch that was harmful and offensive
  • The touch was intentional
  • The touch caused fear and physical harm
  • The touch was uninvited

When we last visited the bar, the two men were only exchanging threats. If things heat up, leaving one guy standing and the other with a black eye and a bloody nose, this would be considered assault and battery. It would be reasonable to believe that the elements of assault were present. Any time a man punches another guy in the face, one would experience imminent fear, believe the threat to be serious and perceive the action to be intentional.

Taking it through the added elements of battery, the act of physical contact caused injury, the knockout was intentionally meant for the victim and it would be reasonable to believe that being pummeled was not a welcomed event for the victim. To take this one step further, what if this square off between two bar patrons ends in something even more violent, like a stabbing or a shooting?

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