An assault incident can give rise to two different kinds of legal proceedings: criminal charges and a civil lawsuit. There is some overlap between the successful criminal prosecution of an assault perpetrator and a finding of civil liability for injuries stemming from the incident, but there are also key differences. We'll discuss the interaction of criminal and civil assault cases in this article, including how a criminal prosecution will affect a personal injury claim based on the same underlying conduct.
An assault must be "intentional" in order to create liability in a personal injury case. "Intentional" usually means that the defendant (the perpetrator of the alleged assault) meant to commit the act that made the other person (the plaintiff) apprehend they were about to be hit, attacked, etc. (Assault is one of a handful of so-called "intentional torts" that can form the basis of a personal injury lawsuit in civil court.)
Note the subtle distinction in a civil case: the defendant doesn’t need to intend to put the plaintiff in apprehension, the defendant simply needs to intentionally commit an act that he or she should have known would cause the plaintiff to experience apprehension. The defendant’s motive for acting intentionally does not matter when it comes to winning a civil assault injury case, although particularly egregious conduct can lead to punitive damages. The central question is whether the plaintiff had a reasonable reaction to what the defendant did, regardless of what the defendant thought he or she was doing. Learn more about when you can file a lawsuit for assault.
In a criminal assault case, the prosecution usually must prove that the defendant acted with an intent to assault the victim, or at least place the victim in fear of immediate harm. In other words, to be found guilty of criminal assault, a judge or jury must find beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant wanted to assault the victim or make it seem as if an assault was imminent. One of the central question in the criminal process is whether the defendant had the requisite criminal intent (called the “mens rea” in legal terminology).
A criminal assault charge is prosecuted in criminal court. This means that a district attorney or other public official is in charge of the case against the defendant. The victim will have little say in how the case is conducted, although he or she could be called as a witness.
Criminal assault is typically a misdemeanor, unless the charges are for aggravated assault, i.e. an attempt to cause serious injury or death and/or use of a deadly weapon. Depending on the state, a misdemeanor charge may not entitle the defendant to a trial by jury—in that situation, the entire case will be decided by the judge.
The victim in the criminal assault case becomes the plaintiff in a civil assault case if he or she decides to sue the defendant for damages (a criminal case isn’t necessary before the plaintiff can sue in civil court). When this happens, the plaintiff is in control of his or her own case (usually along with a lawyer), and the state or public officials are not involved. If the plaintiff wins, the defendant does not receive a jail sentence or any other type of punishment, but must pay whatever amount of financial compensation the jury or court orders. Unless the case is brought in small claims court, an assault case will usually involve a trial by jury.
If the state decides to prosecute a defendant for criminal assault, the defendant cannot be sued in civil court for the same assault until the criminal case has concluded. If a civil case is already under way when a criminal case starts, the civil case is typically “stayed” (i.e. put on pause) until the criminal case has concluded.
The findings in a criminal case (a "guilty" or "not guilty" verdict, a plea agreement, and any “findings of fact”) can usually be used as evidence in a civil case under a doctrine called "collateral estoppel," a complex rule that determines whether criminal findings can be used without having to prove everything a second time in the civil case. It's difficult for even highly-skilled attorneys to predict how a judge might apply collateral estoppel, but the general rule is that if the defendant had a full and fair opportunity to plead his or her case in the criminal trial, the results from the criminal trial will likely be applied in the civil court case.
If you've been injured as a result of an assault, it may make sense to discuss your situation (and all your options) with an experienced personal injury attorney.