Perhaps the most common types of intentional torts are assault and battery, which are also often charged as crimes. People may think of assault and battery as interchangeable or interdependent actions, but there are technical distinctions between them under civil as well as criminal laws. An assault is a threat or action that causes the target to fear imminent bodily harm. It does not need to involve any physical conduct and can be entirely verbal. Battery happens when physical contact with the target or something connected to the target’s person occurs. Since people often follow through on threatening words or gestures by initiating physical contact, assault and battery tend to be alleged together in many claims.
The Importance of Intent
Civil personal injury claims usually arise from actions that are careless but lacking in any malicious intent. For example, someone who rear-ends a car during rush hour traffic probably was simply not paying attention and did not specifically intend to strike the car in front of them. A store employee who forgot to place a “wet floor” sign after washing the floor probably made an innocent mistake and did not intend for a customer to be injured.
Assault and battery are different because the defendant acted deliberately. The other elements of the claim are the same as ordinary personal injury claims. The victim needs to prove that the defendant’s actions breached a duty of care and caused their injuries or losses. However, the victim also needs to prove the element of intent, or otherwise they may need to bring a negligence claim.
Returning to the example above of the rear-end collision, perhaps the rear driver was frustrated with the front driver for driving too slowly. Perhaps they had been tailgating them down the highway and threatening to bump them. If they succumbed to their road rage and deliberately struck the car in front of them, this would be assault and battery. Their previous behavior would have given the victim a reasonable fear of imminent bodily harm, which would be an assault, and their actual striking of the victim’s car would be a battery. The rear driver could face criminal as well as civil liability.
Distinguishing Civil from Criminal Assault and Battery
You may wonder why you should bother bringing a civil claim based on assault and battery if police and prosecutors are planning to pursue criminal charges against the person who struck you. However, you should remember that criminal proceedings are very different from civil proceedings. The goal in a criminal case is to punish the wrongdoer. If the defendant goes to jail, this may not help you get the money that you need to treat your injuries. Only in a civil claim is the focus on the victim and their needs.
Also, you should be aware that you may still have a case even if the prosecutor drops criminal charges or if the defendant is not convicted. A criminal case must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt, which is a challenging standard to meet. By contrast, a civil case needs to be proved only by the preponderance of the evidence, which means that it is more likely than not that the elements of the claim are met. The elements of a civil claim also are more loosely defined than the elements of a crime, which are usually based on a specific, technical statute. This makes it easier to prove civil compared to criminal liability.