Assault and Battery: Civil vs. Criminal Cases

The same conduct can give rise to both civil and criminal liability. Here's how.

Assault and battery are intentional torts, meaning they can serve as the bases for civil lawsuits demanding monetary damages. But assault and battery are also crimes. Criminal assault and battery can result in prosecution by the state and, if the accused is found guilty, can result in jail time. How can the same actions result in two very different court cases? Read on to learn more about the difference between civil and criminal assault and battery.

"Assault and Battery" Defined

Criminal and civil assault and battery share largely the same definition, although each state has different criminal statutes that may vary slightly in the way they define crimes.

Usually, whether civil or criminal, an assault involves an action -- or threat of action -- by one person that puts another person in apprehension of imminent bodily harm.

Battery -- again, both civil and criminal -- is usually the logical extension of assault (a completed assault, in other words). An action that starts as an assault becomes a battery when there is an actual physical touching.

As an example, if a person raises a fist to you and you believe you’re about to be punched, that person has committed an assault, since you're put in fear of an imminent punching. Even if the punch is never thrown, the threat of the punch is enough to constitute assault. If the same person follows through with the punch and connects with your body, you’ve been battered. Assault and battery are so intertwined that they are often referred to as one cause of action.

Civil Assault and Battery

Civil assault and battery are torts. A tort is a wrong committed by one party against another, causing damage. Specifically, civil assault and battery are intentional torts.

Most torts arise from a negligent act, meaning an act that was careless or reckless. “Regular” torts don’t take the intent of the tortfeasor (the person committing the tort) into consideration. As long as the tortfeasor had a duty to act in a non-negligent manner, and they breached that duty and caused damages, they are said to have committed the tort.

Intentional torts are torts that are committed on purpose. In addition to assault and battery, causes of action such as false imprisonment, slander, and fraud typically fall under this category. While the requirements of duty, breach, causation and damages are the same, the added element of the tortfeasor’s intent is taken into consideration as well. If a plaintiff cannot prove that the tort was committed intentionally, it may be a case of negligence as opposed to an intentional tort. (Learn more: What is an Intentional Tort?)

Imagine you are standing in a parking lot loading groceries into your car. Another vehicle across the lane accelerates rapidly in reverse, directly toward you and your vehicle. That same simple set of facts can be illustrative of negligence, or it may amount to assault and battery. How?

First, consider that the driver was reaching for a fallen cellphone and slipped and hit the gas, causing the car to move quickly in reverse. If the driver strikes you or your vehicle, the driver has committed general negligence. He had a duty to operate his vehicle in a non-negligent manner, and he breached that duty and caused you harm.

Now imagine that, immediately prior to getting into his car, the opposing driver was yelling and cursing at you for being in his way while he was trying to back out. Instead of dropping a cellphone and accidentally hitting the gas, the tortfeasor deliberately threw the car into reverse and drove toward you, slamming on the brakes at the last instant to avoid hitting you. You were legitimately apprehensive -- you were afraid he was going to run you over, in other words. The tortfeasor has intentionally placed you in apprehension of imminent physical harm, thus committing civil assault. If the driver actually hits you, he has committed civil battery. The driver’s intent is key.

Learn more about Assault and Battery as Personal Injury Claims.

Criminal Assault and Battery

A crime occurs when an individual violates a law that regulates or prohibits certain conduct. Criminal cases are brought and prosecuted by the state, in the interest of protecting the public welfare. A jury of one’s peers (or a judge) must agree that the prosecution has proven -- beyond a reasonable doubt -- that the crime was committed. If a guilty verdict is entered against the defendant, incarceration can follow.

Assault and battery become criminal actions when there are laws regulating or preventing the behavior. Assault and battery are crimes throughout the United States. The criminal prosecution of assault and battery differs from a civil case in two important ways:

  • the burden of proof is stricter, and
  • there is the added requirement of proving the violation of a law.

Using the parking lot example above, the driver could be charged with assault and battery if he intended to strike you with his vehicle and there were laws prohibiting such behavior (which there are, in every state).

A verdict of not-guilty in a criminal assault or battery case does not prevent a victim from filing a civil suit for the same action. As civil suits involve monetary damages and aren’t brought by the state, double jeopardy rules are inapplicable. A person can be found non-guilty of a crime, but can still be found civilly liable and be forced to pay damages arising out of the same incident. The best modern example of this is the OJ Simpson trial, where he was found not-guilty of the crime of murder, but was later found civilly liable for the wrongful death of the victims.

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