Intentional torts are harms committed by one person against another, where the underlying act was done on purpose (as opposed to harm resulting from negligence, such as injuries caused by a car crash or some other kind of accident).
Civil lawsuits for intentional torts generally allege that the person being sued (the defendant) harmed the plaintiff (the person filing the personal injury lawsuit) by committing assault, battery, false imprisonment, conversion, intentional infliction of emotional distress, fraud/deceit, trespass (to land and property), and defamation. Some courts will also hear an intentional tort case where the defendant intended to commit the act that harmed the plaintiff, but none of the preexisting categories fit the facts. Let's take a closer look at the different kinds of conduct that can lead to an intentional tort lawsuit. (To understand the differences between these kinds of claims and those based on an accident, learn more about intentional torts versus negligence-based injury cases.)
Assault and battery are two closely related, but usually distinct, claims in a civil case. 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. So, an assault involves the threat of harmful contact, while a battery involves the actual harmful or offensive touching itself. Assault and battery can also form the basis of a criminal case.
A defendant may be liable for false imprisonment when he or she detains the plaintiff or confines his or her freedom of movement, through actual use of force or a threat of force. False arrest, which is sometimes considered a type of false imprisonment, occurs when the defendant unlawfully detains the plaintiff at the time of arrest, while false imprisonment could be the result of an unlawful detention after a legal arrest or an unlawful detention unaccompanied by an arrest. Note that anybody (a store owner, a private security guard) can be liable for false imprisonment and false arrest, not merely police officers or other authorities.
Conversion is the civil law equivalent of theft. A conversion occurs when the defendant “exercises dominion and control” over the plaintiff’s property without the plaintiff’s permission. Conversion occurs regardless of whether the defendant returned the property to the plaintiff, although damages will depend on how long the plaintiff was deprived of the property and whether the property was lost or destroyed.
Intentional infliction of emotional distress typically occurs when the defendant intentionally or recklessly causes severe emotional distress to the plaintiff by engaging in “extreme or outrageous” conduct. Extreme or outrageous conduct is impossible to define in exact terms, and will generally be left for the jury or judge to decide, but it is broadly described as going beyond all possible grounds of decency and being utterly intolerable in a civilized community.
Fraud is a very broad term that is used to describe a variety of cons, misrepresentations, misstatements, scams, etc. “Deceit” is a more specific type of fraud generally used to describe a defendant’s intentional act of making a harmful misrepresentation to the plaintiff.
A trespass occurs when the defendant intentionally enters the plaintiff’s land or interferes with the plaintiff’s ownership of property. Trespass is an older category of case law and in many states has been replaced by categories like conversion. To be liable, the defendant does not need to know that he or she will enter, or cause an object to enter, the plaintiff’s land or property—the plaintiff only needs to prove that the defendant intentionally committed the act that led to the entry.
A defendant can be liable for defamation when she or he makes a false statement of fact (as opposed to opinion) about the plaintiff, to one or more people, and that causes harm or damage the plaintiff (or to the plaintiff's reputation). Learn more about defamation of character.
Some states recognize a "catch-all" intentional tort when the facts of the case do not fit any of the other intentional tort categories discussed above. Although the exact requirements vary from state to state, the plaintiff must typically prove that the defendant harmed the plaintiff and that he or she acted intentionally in doing so. Some states require that the defendant not merely intend to commit the act that led to the harm, but that the defendant intended to harm the plaintiff.