Civil Injury Cases vs. Criminal Cases After an Assault

Most people think of an assault as a crime, but it’s also a civil wrong that you can sue someone over.

By | Updated by Stacy Barrett, Attorney

Personal injury lawsuits are often brought by people who've been injured because of someone else's carelessness (negligence), like a pedestrian hit by a distracted driver or a restaurant customer who slips and falls on a wet floor. But an intentional act, like an assault, can also lead to a civil lawsuit.

If you're the victim of an assault, here's what you need to know about your legal rights and options:

  • An assault is an intentional act that puts another person in fear of immediate harm.
  • You can sue the person who assaulted (the "defendant") for money damages.
  • The defendant might also face criminal charges. Potential criminal penalties for assault include fines, probation, and jail or prison time.
  • You can start gathering evidence for your civil lawsuit right after the assault.
  • A personal injury lawyer can help you decide if, when, and where to file a lawsuit.

Let's take a closer look at the legal definition of assault, the similarities and differences between criminal and civil cases, and how much an assault lawsuit might be worth.

What Is an Assault?

The definition of assault, whether in criminal or civil court, is generally the same. An assault happens when an offender purposely causes a victim to be in reasonable fear of immediate physical harm.

Here are a few examples:

  • A fan at a basketball game makes a fist while threatening to punch the referee in the face.
  • A bully at school picks up a large stick and threatens to hit a kid with it.
  • A motorcyclist experiencing road rage accelerates straight toward a pedestrian, stopping just short of a collision.

A few things to note: An assault victim's fear of immediate physical harm must be reasonable. For example, if the fan in our basketball example was 100 yards away from the referee when the threat was made, it wouldn't be an assault. But if the fan was two feet away from the referee, it likely would be an assault.

An assault doesn't require physical contact. An assault is the threat of physical contact. If the offender actually touches the victim, the offender might have committed "battery" instead.

What Should I Do Now if I've Been Assaulted?

In the aftermath of an assault, it's important to protect yourself and your legal rights. Here are some steps you can take when the threat to your safety is over.

Get medical attention. If you're injured, get medical treatment right away. Seeing a doctor will help you heal properly and help you build a personal injury claim against the offender.

Call the police. If you want the person who assaulted you to be criminally prosecuted, you'll have to call the police. (Learn more about how criminal cases get started.) You don't have to call the police to file a personal injury lawsuit. But involving the police often gives you more credibility and access to the evidence you'll need to prove your case in civil court.

Gather information. Try to get the names and contact information of anyone who might have witnessed the assault. You'll also want to find out if you can get video footage of the incident from a surveillance camera, doorbell camera, or cell phone. Take pictures of anything you might be able to use to prove that you were assaulted, like torn clothing, damaged property, or injuries.

Civil Lawsuits vs. Criminal Prosecutions

A personal injury lawsuit over an assault is filed by the victim ("plaintiff") against the offender ("defendant") in civil court. Criminal charges over an assault are filed by the government against the defendant in criminal court.

You Control Your Own Civil Case

Assault is one of a handful of intentional torts that can form the basis of a personal injury lawsuit. Unlike a criminal prosecution, you're in charge of your own civil case. You alone decide whether to sue the person who assaulted you; you decide whether to hire a lawyer or handle your own claim; you decide whether to settle your personal injury claim or go to trial.

If you win your civil case, you get damages (money) for assault-related losses like medical bills, lost income, and pain and suffering.

Learn more about when you can file a lawsuit for assault and what you'll have to prove.

The Government Controls Criminal Cases

A criminal assault case is different. The government, not you, decides whether to prosecute the person who assaulted you. You're a witness for the prosecution, but you'll have little say over whether the case is plea bargained or goes to trial.

Defendants who are convicted of assault in criminal court are subject to the full range of criminal penalties, including fines, community service, probation, jail or prison, and victim restitution.

Learn more about the crimes of assault, assault and battery, and aggravated assault.

Criminal and Civil Cases Based on the Same Assault

A single act can be the basis of a criminal prosecution and a civil lawsuit for money. When a criminal and civil case based on the same assault are happening at the same time, the criminal case will almost always have priority.

Judges will typically pause ("stay") the civil case until the criminal case resolves because the defendant will likely "claim the Fifth" and refuse to testify in the civil case while criminal charges are pending. And a conviction in the criminal case might prevent the defendant from denying certain facts in the civil case.

Damages In Assault Cases

Plaintiffs sue for damages (money) in civil court. Damages in a civil assault case might include:

  • medical bills (past and future)
  • lost income (past and future), and
  • pain and suffering (physical and mental).

Many assault cases don't involve physical injuries. If you didn't have to see a doctor for physical or mental health treatment, it might not be worth pursuing a civil lawsuit because of how pain and suffering damages are calculated.

But if you've experienced physical, emotional, and financial harm because you were assaulted, talk to a lawyer about how you can get compensation.

How Much is a Civil Assault Case Worth?

The value of a civil assault case is based on many factors including:

  • the seriousness of your injuries
  • whether you received medical treatment
  • how the assault has impacted your ability to work now and in the future
  • how the assault has impacted you psychologically and emotionally, and
  • the extent to which the assault has disrupted your daily life.

Most damages are compensatory—they are meant to compensate plaintiffs for assault-related losses and injuries. In rare cases, plaintiffs in assault cases may also be able to get punitive damages. Punitive damages are meant to punish defendants for wrongdoing. Punitive damages are often awarded in cases involving sexual assault.

It's hard to predict how much a civil assault case is worth, especially when a plaintiff suffers no physical injuries. In these types of cases, plaintiffs and juries often have very different ideas about the value of the case. For example, in 2015, a woman claimed that an off-duty police officer asked her to expose herself to him. He took out his taser, pointed it at her, and threatened to deploy it. She ran. He chased her and deployed the taser in her direction. She sued the off-duty officer and the city that employed him for assault. She won her assault claim, but the jury awarded her no damages. (A.B. v. City of Haskell, Arkansas, 4:13CV00619 (E.D.Ark. 2015).)

Next Steps

If you've been assaulted, talk to a lawyer about your options as soon as you can. You have to file a lawsuit before the deadline set by the "statute of limitations" in your state. A lawyer can answer your questions and help you decide when to sue and how to value your case.

If you've been accused of assault, talk to a criminal defense attorney about your rights. A lawyer will talk to you about potential defenses and explain how a criminal case goes through the justice system.

Learn more about finding the right lawyer. You can also connect with a lawyer directly from this page for free.

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