Assault and battery are two closely related, but distinct, types of claims in a civil case. This means that a person who has been victimized by an assault or battery can hold the offender liable for monetary damages as a result of what happened.
An assault takes place when one person acts intentionally in a way that causes another person to reasonably apprehend (or fear) an immediate harmful or offensive contact.
A battery takes place when the defendant’s intentional act actually causes offensive or harmful contact with the plaintiff. These are the standard claims, usually made together, when the plaintiff is suing the defendant for some kind of attack, fight, or other physical altercation -- although assault and battery claims may stem from other situations as well.
The key difference between assault and battery is that an assault claim involves the plaintiff’s apprehension of contact, not the contact itself. For example, if the defendant took a swing at the plaintiff with a baseball bat, but missed, the plaintiff could sue the defendant for assault, but not battery. If the defendant actually intentionally hit the plaintiff with the bat and the plaintiff knew he or she was about to get hit before the contact, then the plaintiff could sue for assault and battery.
Apprehension is the key concept to understanding assault. Apprehension in an assault case does not simply mean fear of being hit or other contact. Apprehension is the plaintiff's reasonable belief that the act may result in imminent contact unless the plaintiff takes some kind of evasive action.
Apprehension may include knowledge, belief, perception, appreciation, awareness, fear, excitement, and anxiety. The plaintiff’s apprehension must also be reasonable. For example, if the defendant playfully takes a swing at the plaintiff with a foam bat as part of game both parties were playing, the plaintiff will have a hard time proving that he or she reasonably apprehended offensive or harmful contact.
Similarly, insults or threats of future harm, by themselves, will not create reasonable apprehension of immediate contact. However, if the defendant is making loud insults and threats while brandishing a weapon, the plaintiff may be able to successfully sue for assault . . . if a reasonable person in the same situation felt they were in imminent danger of some kind of harmful contact.
A successful battery lawsuit requires that the defendant intended to commit the act that led to the offensive or harmful contact with the plaintiff. The defendant’s motive is not important, merely that he intentionally committed an act that was certain or substantially certain to create the contact -- although motive may effect damages (intention is discussed in more detail in this article on intentional injuries and civil claims).
It is also worth noting that, unlike assault, the plaintiff does not need to apprehend the contact before it happens. For example, if the defendant hit the plaintiff from behind with a bat, and the plaintiff had no idea the attack was coming, the plaintiff could sue for battery but not for assault. In fact, so long as the contact is harmful or offensive, the plaintiff does not even need to be aware of the contact at the time it occurs -- for example, if he or she is asleep or unconscious.
The key element for battery, then, is the offensive or harmful contact. First of all, the contact must be either with the body or something closely connected to the body, such as clothing or a chair the plaintiff is sitting in.
The contact is “harmful” if it in any way alters the physical condition or structure of the plaintiff’s body, even if it does not cause pain. For example, if the defendant grabs the plaintiff’s arm or shoves him, but does not actually cause the plaintiff any pain, the plaintiff may still sue for battery. However, a “harmful” contact could also be something more serious, for example putting a dangerous substance in food that the plaintiff subsequently eats.
An “offensive” contact is one that is offensive to a reasonable sense of personal dignity. “Dignity” in this legal sense is a broad phrase encompassing other emotions such as insult, fright, disgust, embarrassment or humiliation. Whether a plaintiff was reacting reasonably when he or she experienced any of these emotions as a result of the defendant’s contact is typically a question for the judge or jury.
As with most torts, the defendant does not need to anticipate the exact harm that occurs from his assault and/or battery to be liable. Therefore, if a plaintiff is particularly frail, and the defendant causes reasonable apprehension or initiates some kind of reasonably offensive or harmful contact, the defendant will be liable for that particular plaintiff’s physical pain, mental suffering and medical damages, even if the damage would have been far less with a healthier plaintiff.
It is important to note a distinction here: if the defendant’s act would not have caused apprehension in a reasonable person or have been offensive to a reasonable person, and the defendant did not know about the plaintiff’s particular frailties, then the defendant may not be found liable for assault or battery.