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Assault and Battery Claims in California

Though assault and battery are commonly associated with criminal punishment (public fines and possibly even imprisonment), the victim of assault and battery is also entitled to personally sue their attacker(s) under civil law to recover damages.

If you are a victim of assault and/or battery, and the attackers are being criminally prosecuted, do not stand-by and wait for the criminal case to run its course. Your potential lawsuit against the attackers is a separate case and you will have to file the lawsuit before the end of your statute of limitations deadline in order to preserve your right to sue for damages.

It is important to note that while assault and battery are often spoken about together, in truth the two torts – assault on its own, and battery on its own – are separate legal claims that are not necessarily linked to one another (though they often are). So while common parlance might refer to an unconsented physical altercation as an assault, in reality such an altercation would be considered a battery. Of course, if the victim was made aware of the attacker’s intention to harm them and thus suffered an apprehension of harm, then the victim would not only be legally entitled to sue for battery, but would likely be entitled to sue for assault as well.

To put it simply: in some cases, battery occurs without assault, and assault occurs without battery.

Intention in Cases Involving Assault and Battery

Assault and battery each fall under the umbrella of intentional tort claims. There is no negligence involved, and therefore the familiar negligence structure for determining fault is done away with. Demonstrating intent is of course key to success in personal injury lawsuits involving intentional torts such as assault and battery.

For assault, the victim (plaintiff) must show that the attacker (defendant) intended to cause harmful or offensive contact, or intended the victim to at least believe that they would suffer harmful or offensive contact.

Importantly, for the defendant to be found liable for assault, the plaintiff need not show that the defendant’s intentions were directed at the plaintiff specifically. It is possible, for example, that the defendant’s intent was directed at a person standing close to plaintiff, but that the plaintiff’s proximity led them to believe that they would suffer harmful or offensive contact as a result.

For battery, the plaintiff must show that the defendant intentionally contacted the plaintiff in a harmful or offensive manner and that in doing so, the plaintiff suffered injuries.

In California, the doctrine of Transferred Intent applies to battery claims. Suppose, for example, that the defendant intends to cause harmful or offensive contact to a person standing next to the plaintiff. The defendant takes a swing at the intended victim, but ultimately misses. Instead, the punch lands on the plaintiff’s face, thereby injuring him. Though the defendant did not actually intend to harm the plaintiff, the defendant’s intention to harm the nearby person is transferred to the plaintiff. As such, the defendant can be held liable for battery even though the defendant did not intend to cause harm to the plaintiff specifically.

Assault – A Quick Breakdown

Foundationally, assault is the expression of an attacker’s intent to cause harmful or offensive contact to another. Assault is oftentimes, though not always, indicated by threatening words and conduct. To better understand assault, let’s break it down into its component elements.

In California, a defendant will be found liable for assault if 1) the defendant either intended to make harmful or offensive contact with the plaintiff (or a third-party as per transferred intent, above) or intended for the plaintiff to believe that they would be subject to harmful or offensive contact; and 2) the plaintiff actually believed that they were going to be subject to harmful or offensive contact.

From the elements outlined above, one might think that mere threatening words are enough to satisfy an assault claim, but that is not typically the case. Generally speaking, there must either or also be threatening conduct that makes the plaintiff believe that they will be subject to harmful or offensive contact. There is not an objective measure for whether the defendant’s threatening conduct or words amount to assault, but the plaintiff’s attorney will have to skillfully argue that the circumstances were such that assault did, in fact, occur. Threatening conduct that includes the showing of weaponry, taking on a fighting stance, and approaching the plaintiff very closely, among others, may tip the scales in the plaintiff’s favor.

Remember, the defendant doesn’t have to follow through with the threat of harm in order to be liable for assault. The plaintiff simply has to believe that the defendant – as a result of the threatening words/conduct – will follow through and complete the harmful or offensive conduct.

Battery – A Quick Breakdown

Foundationally, people are entitled not to be subjected to harmful or offensive contact if they do not wish it. Of course, people are free to consent to such contact, such as when football players consent to potentially dangerous physical contact by playing the game.

In California, a defendant will be found liable for battery if 1) the defendant intentionally subjected the plaintiff to harmful or offensive contact; and 2) the plaintiff was in fact harmed or offended.

If the plaintiff’s battery claim is based on offensive contact, then the plaintiff must demonstrate that it was reasonable to be offended by said contact. For example, it may be difficult for a plaintiff to succeed in a battery claim in which the plaintiff claims that the defendant’s light, but unconsented pat of congratulations on the plaintiff’s shoulder constituted battery. On the other hand, the plaintiff may have a stronger ‘offensive’ battery claim if the defendant began tickling the plaintiff (without consent) in a professional workplace setting.

Though we’ve covered intent to a degree, one thing to keep in mind is that intent is a given in situations involving illegal conduct. For example, suppose that a defendant is robbing a convenience store. Perhaps the defendant does not intend to hurt one of the employees, but still unintentionally fires his gun, thus injuring the employee-plaintiff. Because the gun was fired – though unintentionally – in the course of an illegal act, the defendant’s intent is not actually necessary under the law. In California, the element of intent will be satisfied under such circumstances.

Common Defenses to Battery

There are a numerous defenses to battery under California law, but there are a few quite common defenses that parties are likely to be exposed to: self-defense, defense of others, defense of property, and consent to harmful or offensive contact.

Self-Defense and Defense of Others

A person is entitled to protect themselves, and others, from harm, but they must exercise reasonable force in doing so. Whether the force exercised by the defendant was reasonable – and whether actual harm was about to occur such that the defendant had to act to protect themselves or others – is a question that depends largely on the circumstances.

Defense of Property

A person is entitled to act in order to prevent damage to their property, and the property of others (typically a relative, friend, or other guest). Again, the defendant must have exercised reasonable force, but the standard for reasonable force is stricter for property damage than it is for self-defense. A defendant may, however, use lethal force if necessary to protect their property if the force is exercised based on a reasonable belief that doing so is necessary to protect their own life (or a family member’s life).

Consent to Harmful/Offensive Contact

If the plaintiff consented to the harmful or offensive contact at-issue, then the defendant cannot be held liable for battery. Consent is a frequent defense to battery in cases involving sports injuries, as players give their explicit or implied consent to the natural consequences of engaging in the sport (which may include intentional contact that is reasonably likely to cause harm).