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Date Modified: September 10, 2023

Self-defense under intentional Tort Law is “that amount of force which is reasonable to defend yourself in any given situation.” For example, if someone attacked you with a baseball bat, it may or may not be proper for you to shoot them with a gun, but certainly, if you had a baseball bat, that may be deemed adequate force to protect yourself from another bat. Some states allow you to defend yourself right away. That is “majority rule,” and that is California. Other states have “a retreat to the wall rule,” those states say that before you can defend yourself, you must first try and run and retreat to the wall, but once you are cornered, then you have the right to defend yourself.

  • Video Transcript - What Is ‘Self Defense’ Under Tort Law?

    Video Transcript - What Is ‘Self Defense’ Under Tort Law?

    "0:00 What is self-defense under tort law
    0:03 Self-defense under intentional tort law
    0:06 is that amount of force which is
    0:08 reasonable to defend yourself in any
    0:10 given situation. For example, if someone
    0:13 attacks you with a baseball bat it may
    0:16 or may not be proper for you to shoot
    0:18 them with a gun. But certainly if you had
    0:20 a baseball bat, that may be deemed
    0:22 adequate force to protect yourself from 0:24 another bat. Some states allow you to
    0:28 defend yourself right away. That’s the
    0:30 majority rule and that’s California.
    0:31 Other states have a retreat to the wall
    0:33 rule. Those states say that before you
    0:36 can defend yourself you must first try
    0:38 and run and retreat to the wall. But once
    0:40 you’re cornered, then you have the right
    0:42 to defend yourself. [Music]"

The personal right to use reasonable force to defend oneself against an attack is recognized under tort law. Self-defense is usually only used in circumstances of intentional assault and battery, but it is also permissible in cases of unjust imprisonment. A defendant uses this argument to justify their behavior. Under some situations, a person being attacked or threatened has the right to retaliate against the attacker to protect himself.

The Privilege of Self-Defense

The privilege of self-defense is based on the principle that no one should watch helplessly as another harms them, and there is no need to wait to seek redress through the legal system. Furthermore, the privilege is recognized in both criminal law and tort law.

While a person may take reasonable precautions to protect himself, the right to self-defense ends once the threat has passed (revenge does not qualify as self-defense). The privilege also applies when there is a reasonable suspicion of imminent danger; one does not need to wait for an actual blow to be struck.

A person does not necessarily need to behave with unusual bravery, but he or she also cannot claim unusual timidity as an excuse for their conduct; the fear of harm must be reasonable.

Although a person retains the right to legal defense, the privilege of self-defense also disappears if the danger is no longer a threat. A person cannot attack another in revenge or for any other motive than the immediate threat of harm. The average person is usually familiar with this idea: if you are being assaulted, you have the right to use equal force to protect yourself from harm.

Similarly to this, if you are falsely imprisoned, you have the right to use such force to free yourself. You may use self-defense to defend your acts if you are later sued for injuring that individual.

What Is Self-Defense?

A person using excessive force, which may include fatal force, to defend themselves from an active attack or threat is said to be acting in self-defense. Essentially, self-defense can also refer to the use of physical action to protect one’s personal property against ongoing burglaries or break-ins.

If the person using force was acting to defend or aid a third party from an active attack, then using force may also be considered self-defense. A defendant must first be accused of assault and battery or murder before they can claim self-defense as justification for their acts in a court of law.

Self-defense may also apply in a civil lawsuit when the defendant is being sued for:

  • Assault;
  • Battery; or
  • Wrongful death.

Furthermore, self-defense is usually described as a justifiable defense.

What Is the Difference Between a Crime and a Tort?

While intentional torts are also crimes, there are variations between crimes and intentional torts. A tort is a wrong committed against someone or something.

Essentially, a person who commits an intentional tort is liable for the bodily harm they created. Crimes are wrongdoings that the state or federal government classifies as illegal.

A wrongdoing that disrespects a state or federal law is considered a crime. Therefore, a defendant who is held accountable for a tort must compensate the plaintiff with monetary damages.

If a defendant is found guilty of a crime, the government will punish them, and they may face:

  • Incarceration;
  • Criminal fines; or
  • Other criminal penalties.

When Is Self-Defense Permissible Under the Law?

Various forms of self-defense and defense of others are recognized in every state. Depending on where the offense was committed, variations might occur.

The defendant must take specific precautions before using force to defend themselves, whether the defendant was at home or on a public street.

If certain conditions are met, legal self-defense is allowed, including:

  • When excessive force was used, the defendant was either physically attacked or saw another person being attacked. It is insufficient to use physical activity in reaction to verbal abuse;
  • The defendant had a real and reasonable belief that self-defense was essential to stop or prevent the attack from continuing;
  • The defendant did not use excessive force;

This means that the reasonable force used was proportionate to the attack and sufficient to stop it or to avoid serious bodily injury.

What About Deadly Force? | Castle Doctrine

If one is being threatened with deadly force and has no other way to escape, they should only use deadly force as a last resort. Deadly force is not always an obvious problem and largely depends on the case’s specifics. Before resorting to the use of deadly force, a person should make every effort to leave the situation if there is a chance to do so. This is usually not the case if the victim is attacked within their own home.

It is not necessary for the victim to leave their own property. This idea, known as the “castle doctrine,” suggests that a reasonable person has the right to use any amount of force, including deadly force and physical force, to prevent an invader from hurting them within their own home. Therefore, deadly force can be used.

What Is Excessive Force?

Essentially, the burden of proving the absence of self-defense is on the prosecutor when the affirmative defense of self-defense is invoked. The defendant may still be found guilty of the crime(s) alleged even if he used “excessive” force to protect himself. However, the jury is instructed to deliver a judgment of “not guilty” if the prosecution is unable to establish the absence of self-defense.

When Can You Claim Self-Defense?

The actor must have a reasonable belief that using physical or deadly force was necessary to prevent serious bodily injury to himself in order to use self-defense as a defense for their actions.

Any reasonable person would presume that the victim is in immediate danger based on the initial attacker’s behavior, which is what is meant by “reasonable belief.”

The defendant may nonetheless claim self-defense even if they were mistaken and there was no real threat. A self-defense claim never includes taking revenge or retaliating; rather, it is only intended to defend individuals who are facing an immediate attacker.

When defending property, the defendant is allowed to use non-deadly force provided that:

  • The invasion or illegal use of the defendant’s property by the plaintiff is not protected by any privilege.
  • The defendant requests the plaintiff to stop the intrusive activity before using force, but the request is ignored.
  • The defendant has a reasonable belief that force is necessary to protect their property.

Mechanical traps may be used to protect property as long as they are necessary, reasonable, and commonly used in the neighborhood where the defendant resides, and an adequate warning of their presence is given.

Deadly traps are only allowed if the intrusion truly puts the defendant or their family in danger of dying or experiencing serious physical harm.

Necessity Defenses

A defendant who uses the “public necessity” defense may argue that his actions were justified because they benefited the entire community.

Imagine the kitchen of an apartment building on fire. To put out the fires, the fire department might bust through the front entrance and use severe force on the cabinets and walls. They might also squirt water down walls, staining or even damaging them.

Because it was necessary for the public to contain and put out the fire, the owner of the apartment may not be entitled to recover for harm caused to the personal property or the unit itself. After all, the fire might have gotten out of control and spread to adjacent units, destroying the community severely.

In theory, a private necessity is similar. The defense’s completeness makes a difference. In other words, a defendant may argue that using someone else’s property was necessary to avoid additional harm to their own in a public necessity defense. Therefore, it was necessary to protect oneself in a private necessity defense.

What Are Some Common Remedies Awarded in a Tort Law Case?

The type and extent of the imminent harm the victim suffered will determine the remedy that is ordered in an intentional tort case. Compensatory damages are one of the most commonly awarded remedies in civil tort cases.

Other remedies include:

  • Lost wages;
  • Medical expenses; or
  • Costs related to repairing or replacing property.

Additionally, a plaintiff may receive financial compensation for their emotional distress or for their pain and suffering. The court may also impose an injunction in certain circumstances.

An injunction orders a defendant to avoid participating in behavior that harms the plaintiff or to perform a specific task. If a defendant, for instance, is found liable for spilling toxic substances, they can also be required to clean up the mess and take steps to prevent spills in the future.

Even though they are rare, punitive damages may sometimes be granted to a plaintiff. Punitive damages are meant to hold a defendant liable for harmful conduct or gross negligence.

Should I Discuss Self-Defense with a Lawyer?

If you are a defendant in a tort action, it is in your best interest to speak with a tort lawyer about your potential defenses. Your lawyer can give you advice on the likely results of your case if you are the plaintiff in a tort lawsuit and the defendant is pressing a self-defense claim.

When you are required to appear in court, your attorney will represent you. Additionally, your lawyer can represent you in any negotiations that might take place to settle your case.

Michael Ehline is an inactive U.S. Marine and world-famous legal historian. Michael helped draft the Cruise Ship Safety Act and has won some of U.S. history’s largest motorcycle accident settlements. Together with his legal team, Michael and the Ehline Law Firm collect damages on behalf of clients.
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