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The Doctrine of Transferred Intent

Adam De Gree, Kat Kadian-Baumeyer
  • Author
    Adam De Gree

    Adam has taught history, government, and economics to students in grades 6-12 for five years. He has a BA in Philosophy from UC Santa Barbara, and an MA in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics from CEVRO Institute, Prague, Czech Republic.

  • Instructor
    Kat Kadian-Baumeyer

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

Learn about the transferred intent doctrine. Identify what transferred intent is and learn transferred intent examples, such as the case of Talmage v. Smith in 1894. Updated: 08/04/2022

Table of Contents


What is Transferred Intent?

The doctrine of transferred intent is an important, and common-sensical, legal principle. It states that when a person attempts to harm someone and instead harms a completely different person, they may be held liable for intending to commit a crime. In other words, if Sam tries to punch Joe but misses, hitting Ray instead, Sam can be held liable for hitting Ray, even though she didn't "intend" to hit Ray.

Transferred intent is a doctrine in the law of torts, as well as in criminal law. A tort is either an act, or a failure to act, that results in injury or harm to a person. Tort law is a branch of civil law, not a branch of criminal law. This means that people found guilty in tort law aren't sent to jail. Instead, they are ordered to repair the harm they have done in some way. Usually, this means that they must pay money to those they have harmed. In criminal law courts, guilty persons are punished and may be sentenced to prison.

There are different kinds of torts. Negligent torts concern harms caused by people failing to show a reasonable standard of care. Oftentimes, accidents are caused by negligence. In intentional torts, on the other hand, the harm has been caused by willful misconduct. Finally, in liability torts, willfulness and negligence are irrelevant. All that matters is the actual damage that has been done.

Transferred intent is a doctrine that applies to intentional torts. In legal jargon, the intent is said to "transfer" from the intended tort to the injury that resulted from the act. In the example above, Sam's intent transfers from the person of Joe to the person of Ray.

Transferred intent also applies to situations in which a person intends to commit a tort against someone, but in the course of implementing their plan, they commit a different tort. Altering the previous example: Sam means to hit Joe with a baseball bat, but she swings and misses. However, in the course of missing, she loses her footing, spins, and hits Ray in the head with her elbow. In this case, Sam cannot claim innocence because she did not "intend" to hit Ray with her elbow. The intent of her original act transfers to the actually committed act.

The doctrine of transferred intent is important because it allows the victims of crimes to seek justice, even if the offender did not intend the crime to affect them.

Doctrine of Transferred Intent

It's also important to note that the doctrine of transferred intent helps to ensure that people are held to account for the full severity of their intentions. For example, Sam might choose to throw a brick at Joe, hoping to hit him in the head. However, say that Sam's aim is off, and her brick crashes through the windshield of Joe's car, instead. Without the doctrine of transferred intent, Sam might be tried for malicious injury to property. However, that is a far less serious charge than assault or even attempted murder, which may be appropriate in a case where someone throws a brick at someone else.

The doctrine of transferred intent applies to five torts. These are:

  • Assault, or the attempt to cause serious harm to another person
  • Battery, which is the criminal act of intentionally touching or using force on someone else, even if harm does not take place
  • False Imprisonment refers to the confinement or restraint of another person made without legal authority
  • Trespass to Land, commonly known as "trespassing," means entering another's property without permission
  • Trespass to Chattels refers to the intentional interference with a person's enjoyment of their property

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  • 0:02 Transferred Intent
  • 1:25 Talmage v. Smith (Mich. 1894)
  • 3:06 Lesson Summary
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Frequently Asked Questions

What is an example of transferred intent?

If Sam tries to punch Joe but hits Ray instead, her intent will transfer from Joe to Ray. Transferred intent lay behind the legal case of Talmage v. Smith.

Why is the doctrine of transferred intent important?

The doctrine of transferred intent is important because it ensures that people can seek redress for harms they suffer. It also ensures that offenders are charged with the appropriate severity of the torts they commit.

Does transferred intent apply to property?

Yes, transferred intent applies to property. It applies to both real property, in trespass to land, and personal property, in trespass to chattels.

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