Self-defense is a legal concept that allows an individual to use reasonable force to protect themselves or a third party from personal injury that is inflicted by another individual so long as the defender has reason to believe that they or the third party are in serious imminent danger.

The term self-defense may also refer to an individual’s right to protect their own property, such as their home.

Self-defense provides an individual with the right to protect themselves from harm under certain circumstances. It is commonly used as a defense by individuals who are accused of:

When Can I Use Self-Defense?

The laws governing self-defense vary state by state. In general, self-defense may only be used in response to an immediate threat.

For example, if an individual with a knife threatens to stab another individual 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 exact revenge by punching them. In addition, the threat warranting the self-defense actions may be verbal or physical, so long as a reasonable individual in the same or similar situation would perceive that the perpetrator would harm them.

For example, a reasonable individual 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 threatening to punch an individual until they gave up their wallet may reasonably cause justified fear of imminent harm.

It is important to note that the threat of harm is required to be active at the time the individual defends themselves. If the threat has ended and a threat of violence no longer exists, or the danger has ended, then the justification for self-defense is reduced or no longer exists.

How Much Violence Can I Inflict on an Aggressor Using Self-Defense?

Typically, self-defense only warrants a proportional response. In other words, the use of force which is inflicted during the self-defense by the victim must match the level of the threat posed by the aggressor, or perpetrator.

If the aggressor is threatening to use deadly force against an individual, that individual is permitted to use deadly force in defending themselves in order to counteract that threat. The individual may not, however, utilize deadly force to defend themselves if the threat is minor.

Do I Have a Duty to Retreat Before Using Self-Defense?

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

The duty to retreat, however, only applies if there is a safe escape available for the victim and they knew or should have known of this safe escape at the time of the attack. For more information on related issues, see the following LegalMatch articles:

What is the Duty to Retreat vs. Stand Your Ground Laws?

Because each state differs on their individual laws governing self-defense, some states are duty to retreat states whereas other states follow stand your ground laws. The duty to retreat requires an individual to first attempt to avoid the violence, or retreat, prior to using force in order to validly claim self-defense.

In other words, the individual is required to try and escape the potentially dangerous situation prior to using force to protect themselves. Stand your ground laws, on the other hand, remove the duty for the individual to remove themselves from the violence and permits them to use force without first attempting to flee from the situation.

The states are split regarding whether a victim is permitted to stand their ground by using lethal force.

Can I Use Self-Defense to Protect My Home?

Yes, an individual can use self-defense to protect their home. The castle doctrine allows an individual to defend their home against intruders by using lethal force.

The idea behind this doctrine is that an individual’s home is their castle and, therefore, they may do whatever they can to defend it against intruders.

Can I Use Self-Defense Against Pets Owned by Someone Else?

Yes, an individual is permitted to use self-defense against an attack by another individual’s pet, such as a dog. An individual can also use self-defense against a wild animal, so long as all applicable steps are followed.

However, it is important to note that self-defense against another individual’s pet will require similar steps to self-defense against another individual. The animal must be the instigator and the individual must not use overly lethal force.

If an animal was simply growling, then using deadly force against it with the intent to kill would not be considered self-defense. If, however, an individual witnesses an animal attacking another person, then they have every right to step in for the defense of the other individual.

If the individual follows the steps for self-defense as required, the pet owner will be limited in suing the individual for injuring or killing their pet.

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

Yes, there may be exceptions or requirements that must be met prior to using self-defenses. For example, the follow situations may prevent an individual from using self-defense as a defense to a claim against them, including:

  • Using excessive or unreasonable force. For example, escalating a fight or using a weapon against an unarmed attacker may be considered excessive depending on the size and use of force by the perpetrator;
    • For example, an unarmed burglar enters an individual’s home and they pull a gun on the intruder. The intruder then begins to run away when the homeowner shoots them in the back.
  • This action is not likely to be self-defense;
  • Failing to retreat when required to do so;
  • Starting the fight and
  • Using force after the attack has ended. For example, if an individual is assaulted and afterwards the attacker flees. If the individual then chases them down and attacks them, it would not be considered self-defense.

What is Self-Defense in a Tort Claim?

A tort claim is a civil claim for a remedy, typically monetary compensation for injuries or property damage. Self-defense may be used as a justified legal defense to win a personal injury lawsuit.

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

Yes, it is possible for a plaintiff to prevail in a tort claim when the defendant claims self-defense. Each case is unique and if a defendant attacked the plaintiff, exacted revenge, or went beyond the level of the threat presented, they may lose their case.

In addition, if a defendant successfully defended themselves but then continued to use force against the plaintiff, they may lose their case. For example, suppose the plaintiff punched the defendant.

Suppose that then the defendant punched the plaintiff back before more punches could be thrown. At this stage, the defendant can adequately argue self-defense.

If, however, the defendant continues punching the plaintiff after the threat from the plaintiff has ended, self-defense no longer applies to the defendant’s actions.

Should I Speak with an Attorney?

Self-defense laws can be complex, difficult to understand, and vary by state. There may also be nuances of the law that everyday citizens are not aware of.

In self-defense cases, there are often two or more individuals who are using force against one another. This may make it difficult to determine which party is at fault.

Because of these issues, it may be helpful to consult with a criminal lawyer regarding any issues, questions, or concerns you may have related to self-defense claims. Your attorney will be able to assist you with making sense of the laws that apply in your case and will represent you in court during criminal proceedings.