Self-Defense in a Tort Claim

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 What is Self-Defense?

Self-defense is a broad term which is used to describe an individual’s use of force, which may include deadly force, to protect themselves from an active attack or threat. The term self-defense may also be used to describe the use of force to protect an individual’s property from an ongoing burglary or robbery.

Defense of others may also fall under the umbrella of self-defense if the individual using the force was doing so in order to protect or aid a third party from an active attack. In order for the defense of self-defense to become applicable to criminal law, a defendant must be charged with assault and battery or murder and then raise self-defense as a justification for their actions.

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

  • Assault;
  • Battery; or
  • Wrongful death.

Self-defense is commonly referred to as a justifiable defense.

What is the Difference Between a Crime and a Tort?

There are differences between crimes and torts, although certain torts are also crimes. A tort is a wrong against an individual or property.

An individual who commits a tort is liable for the harm which they caused. Crimes are wrongful acts but are classified as illegal by the state or federal government.

A crime is a wrongful act that violates a state law or a federal law. A defendant who is found liable for a tort will be required to pay the plaintiff monetary damages.

A defendant who is convicted of a crime will be punished by the government and may face:

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

When is Self-Defense Legally Justified?

Every state recognizes some type of self-defense and the defense of others. Variations may occur depending upon the location of the crime.

For example, if the defendant was at home or on a public street and whether the defendant is required to take certain precautions prior to using force to defend themselves. Legal self-defense applies when certain factors are met, including:

  • The defendant was physically attacked or witnessed a third-party being attacked when they used force. If only words are used, that is not enough to respond with physical force;
  • The defendant did not start the physical altercation. If an individual starts the fight, it is highly unlikely they can use a self-defense defense;
  • The defendant had a true and reasonable belief that self-defense was necessary to stop or prevent the attack from continuing; and
  • The defendant did not use excessive force;. This means that the force used was proportionate to the attack and sufficient to stop it or to avoid further injury.

Are there any Exceptions or Requirements before Using Self-Defense?

Yes, there are certain exceptions or requirements which must be considered prior to using self-defense. The following facts may prevent a defendant from using the legal defense of self defense:

  • Use of excessive or unreasonable force. Escalating a fight or using a weapon against an attacker who is unarmed may be considered excessive depending on the size of and use of force by the attacker;
  • Failing to retreat when there is a requirement to do so;
  • Starting the fight; or
  • Using force after the attack has ended;
    • For example, suppose an individual was assaulted and afterwards the attacker flees. If the individual chases them down and attacks them, then it is not self-defense.

What is Self-Defense in a Tort Claim?

Self-defense in a tort case is used as a justified legal defense to prevail in a personal injury lawsuit. Self-defense may be used to reduce the amount of damages the defendant is required to pay or to absolve the defendant of any liability in the case.

How Much Physical Force can be Used?

The amount of force which is used is required to be reasonable and to match the force used by the plaintiff. For example, if a plaintiff punched the defendant, the defendant may block the plaintiff’s punch with a punch of their own.

What is the Difference between Self-Defense and Excessive Force?

Excessive force is defined as physical force that goes too far. In other words, the level of force does not match the level of force the plaintiff threatened to use or actually used. An example of excessive force would be if a plaintiff punches the defendant and the defendant then responds by shooting the plaintiff in the stomach with a firearm.

What is Deadly Force Involving Self-Defense?

Deadly force involves the use of physical force that can or does cause death or serious bodily injury to another individual. Deadly force can only be used when a defendant is threatened with deadly force and does not have any reasonable means to escape.

When Can a Defendant Claim Self-Defense?

A defendant may claim self-defense if they are sued for battery or assault. Self-defense may also be used in a false imprisonment case when a defendant was confined to an area without their consent by the plaintiff.

Could a Plaintiff Win a Tort Claim if Self-Defense is Used?

Yes, it may be possible for a plaintiff to win a tort case if self-defense is used. If a defendant attacked the plaintiff, exacted revenge, or went beyond the level of the threat presented, they may lose the case.

In addition, if a defendant successfully defends themselves but continues to use force against the plaintiff, the defendant may lose their case. For example, suppose that the plaintiff punched the defendant.

Suppose that the defendant then punched the plaintiff back before the plaintiff could punch them again. This scenario is adequate self-defense.

If, however, the defendant continues to punch the plaintiff after the threat ended, self defense will no longer be a viable defense for the defendant.

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

The remedy which is ordered in a tort case will depend upon the type and seriousness of the harm which the victim suffered. One of the most common remedies which is awarded in a civil tort case is compensatory damages.

Compensatory damages are monetary damages that are awarded to a plaintiff for economic harm they suffered, including:

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

A plaintiff may also be awarded monetary damages in order to compensate them for their pain and suffering or for their emotional distress. In certain cases, the court may also issue an injunction.

An injunction orders a defendant to cease doing something that caused harm to the plaintiff or to do a specific task. For example, if a defendant is found liable for spilling toxic substances, they may also be ordered to clean up the spill as well as to take action to avoid future spills.

Although they are rarely awarded, in some cases, a plaintiff may be awarded punitive damages. Punitive damages are intended to punish a defendant for their harmful actions or gross negligence.

These types of damages are rare because they are only awarded in the most egregious cases when a court deems that compensatory damages are not sufficient or that the defendant should be required to pay a price beyond the compensation paid to the victim for their actual damages.

Should I Talk to an Attorney about Self-Defense?

If you are a defendant who is facing a tort action, it is in your best interest to consult with a tort attorney regarding the defenses that may be available to you. If you are the plaintiff in a tort case and the defendant is presenting a self-defense claim, your attorney can advise you regarding the possible outcomes of your case.

Your attorney will represent you in court when you are required to appear. In addition, your attorney can represent you during any negotiations that may occur to settle your case.

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