Self-defense is a legal concept which allows a person to use a reasonable amount of force in order to protect themselves, or a third party, from personal injury that is inflicted by another person. This is as long as the defender has reason to believe that they or the third party are in serious imminent danger. The term may also refer to a person’s right to protect their own property, such as their home. This will be further discussed later on.

Self-defense provides a person with the right to protect themselves from harm under certain circumstances, such as by those accused of:

The laws governing self-defense vary by state. In general, self-defense may only be used in response to an immediate threat. An example of this would be how a person with a knife threatens to stab another person if they do not give up all of their money, and the victim runs away unharmed. That victim cannot claim self-defense if they find their perpetrator 24 hours later and punch them in retaliation.

Additionally, the threat warranting the self-defense actions may be either verbal or physical, so long as a reasonable person in the same or similar situation would perceive that the perpetrator would harm them.

An example of this would be how a reasonable person would not perceive that a three year old threatening to hit them until they gave the child chocolate would cause them physical harm. However, a large grown man who was threatening to punch a person until they gave up their wallet may reasonably cause justified fear of imminent harm.

It is important to note that the threat of harm must be active at the time that the person defends themselves. What this means is that if the threat has ended and a threat of violence no longer exists, or if the danger has ended, the justification for self-defense is either reduced or no longer exists.

In short, it is generally required that the other party attacks first, and then the victim responds with some form of self-defense. In order for the victim to not be held liable themselves for the use of force, the amount of force used must be equal to the amount of force that the plaintiff used.

Other examples of when self-defense is commonly asserted include:

  • Assault and battery;
  • Theft claims;
  • Breaking and entering claims;
  • Robbery and burglary cases; and
  • Sexual assault incidents.

What Is Deadly Force, And When Can It Be Used?

Deadly force is legally defined as any physical force capable of causing someone serious bodily harm or death. Serious bodily harm is a legal term that is used in some criminal cases, and is often distinguished from other types of harm, such as emotional harm or psychological damage. Serious bodily harm may result from both intentional as well as unintentional, or negligent, conduct.

The phrase may also be known as:

State laws may vary regarding the definition of serious bodily harm and serious bodily injury. Generally speaking, serious bodily harm is defined as any injury that seriously interferes with a person’s health or comfort, and is long-lasting rather than short-lived.

Some common examples of serious bodily harm include:

  • Paralysis;
  • Loss of limb, loss of functioning in a limb, and broken bones;
  • Head, neck, or spine injuries;
  • Serious cuts or burns; and
  • Scarring or serious disfigurement.

Serious bodily harm is frequently associated with cases involving recklessness in a car accident, and in many intentional crimes such as battery, robbery, or assault.

Deadly force can be used as a defense from serious bodily injury or death. It can also be used as a defense:

  • To protect a third party from serious bodily harm or death;
  • In order to prevent a crime from occurring; and
  • By law enforcement.

Courts determine whether deadly force was justified by:

  • Considering the amount force used;
  • Determining whether the amount of force was reasonable;
  • Determining whether the plaintiff used deadly force first;
  • Comparing the plaintiff’s height, age, and weight to the defendant’s weight, height, and age;
  • Analyzing whether a deadly weapon was used by the plaintiff or defendant; and
  • Analyzing whether either party had training in combat or martial arts.

To reiterate, the amount of deadly force that is used must match the plaintiff’s use of deadly force; meaning, the defendant generally only has the right to use deadly force when the plaintiff uses it against them first. In general, deadly force involves the use of a weapon, such as:

  • A gun;
  • Knives; and/or
  • Blunt striking instruments.

However, deadly force can be applied even without the use of weapons, especially if the person has specific training in martial arts, military applications, or other similar methods. An example of this would be how a person who has a black belt in martial arts may be able to apply deadly force under specific circumstances.

Can I Use Deadly Force To Defend My Property?

In terms of using deadly force to defend property, a defendant can generally only use deadly force when protecting their home against an intruder who is threatening to use deadly force. An example of this would be when the plaintiff breaks into the defendant’s home and points a gun at the defendant, putting the defendant’s life in immediate danger.

In this instance, the defendant can use deadly force because the plaintiff is threatening to use a gun in order to harm them. However, if the person was unarmed during the break in and is not threatening any violence, the homeowner would not likely be allowed to use deadly force.

Several states have “Stand Your Ground” Laws, which give people the right to protect themselves with deadly force without any obligation to retreat. However, each state has a variation on this law, and many states differentiate Stand Your Ground laws with the “Castle Doctrine.” This doctrine gives people the right to protect themselves when in their home or vehicle.

In comparison, a stand your ground law allows people to defend themselves anywhere, such as in a public place or in another person’s private residence.

How Is The Use Of Deadly Force During Self Defense Proven?

In order to prove whether the amount of force used during self-defense was justified, in addition to the previously discussed factors, courts may consider various forms of evidence. This can include proof such as:

  • Witness and bystander testimony and statements;
  • Written statements from either party;
  • Video footage and/or photos of the incident;
  • Official police reports;
  • Testimony from an expert witness, such as a doctor or firearms specialist; and/or
  • Medical records and documents which can be used to show how serious and/or damaging the attack was.

In some states, a defendant is required to retreat, or run away, from their attacker prior to using deadly force in order to stop an attack. In such states, they may not require this duty to be exercised if an attack occurs inside a victim’s home by an outside assailant.

However, this duty to retreat only applies if there is a safe escape available for the victim. Additionally, they must have known or should have known of this safe escape at the time of the attack.

Do I Need A Lawyer For Help With Issues Associated With Deadly Force?

You should work with a personal injury lawyer about the deadly force defense in your personal injury case.

An experienced attorney can help you understand your legal rights and options according to your state’s specific laws regarding the use of deadly force, and will also be able to represent you in court, as needed.