Civil assault claims are private lawsuits filed in connection with an incident of assault.  Under tort laws, assault is defined as any act that causes a “reasonable apprehension” of immediate harm or offensive contact to the victim’s person.

Thus, under civil tort laws, the victim doesn’t actually need to be physically struck in order to claim assault- it’s enough that the defendant caused them to fear being hit or contacted in an offensive manner, such as where the defendant attempts to stab the victim but misses.  In such claims, the plaintiff can usually collect a damages award to pay for their losses.  Cases where the plaintiff is actually physically struck are usually classified as battery.

Civil assault is also called by other names, including “simple assault” or “tortious assault”.

How Are Civil and Criminal Assault Alike?

Assault can also be filed under criminal laws.  In both civil and criminal assault cases, the elements of proof are relatively similar. First, both require that the defendant created a “reasonable apprehension of harm” in the plaintiff. In other words, the plaintiff felt fear or anxiety that physical harm would happen to the plaintiff very soon after the defendant’s threat.

Second, assault charges in civil and criminal cases require that the plaintiff prove that it was the defendant’s action which triggered the reasonable apprehension of harm. The defendant must be seen as the cause of the assault, not merely an accessory.

Finally, both civil and criminal law require that the defendant either meant to cause harm to the plaintiff or should have known that the defendant’s action would cause the plaintiff to fear imminent harm.

What is the Difference Between Civil Assault and Criminal Assault?

Assault can also be filed under criminal laws.  In both civil and criminal assault cases, the elements of proof or relatively similar.  Both require that the defendant create a “reasonable apprehension of harm” in the plaintiff.

However, the difference between civil assault and criminal assault lies mostly in the legal remedies that result from the action.  In a civil assault claim, it is a private lawsuit between two individuals.  The plaintiff can generally collect monetary damages awards (sometimes in very high amounts), but a jail sentence is not generally imposed in a civil assault claim.

In contrast, with a criminal trial, the parties involved are actually the victim and the state (the prosecution).  Thus, any damages awards may be limited by state statutes that cover how much a person can recover in a criminal trial.  On the other hand, criminal laws may impose a jail sentence for the offender.  Depending on the severity of the assault, the jail sentence can range from a few months to several years. 

Civil law requires that the defendant either meant to cause apprehension to the plaintiff or that the defendant should have know that his or her actions would cause apprehension to the plaintiff. Criminal law, in contrast, requires that the defendant meant to commit battery, or physical injury, to the plaintiff. There is no such thing as an “accidental” assault in criminal law.

Are There Any Defenses To Civil Assault Claims?

Yes, the most common defenses are:

  • Self-Defense: The defendant was attacked by the plaintiff and the defendant committed assault to protect him or herself. This defense also opens the plaintiff to a counter-suit for assault and battery in return.
  • Privilege: The defense has a limited right to commit assault in certain contexts. For example, when a police officer attempts to place a suspect under arrest. 
  • Consent: The plaintiff consented to be placed in a position where the plaintiff would be assaulted.
  • Denial of the elements of assault: As stated above, a successful assault claim must prove all three elements of assault: apprehension of harm in the plaintiff, cause of action from the defendant and the defendant’s purpose and/or knowledge of harm to the plaintiff. If any of these items are disproven, the entire assault claim will fail.

Do I Need a Lawyer for Assistance With a Civil Assault Claim?

In general, it’s usually necessary to hire a lawyer when filing a civil assault claim in court.  The expertise of a lawyer will be needed for various tasks such as presenting legal arguments and providing evidence to be used for proof.  An experienced personal injury lawyer can help represent you so that you can receive compensation for your losses.