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Assault is generally defined as an intentional act that puts another person in reasonable apprehension of imminent harmful or offensive contact. No physical injury is required, but the actor must have intended to cause a harmful or offensive contact with the victim and the victim must have thereby been put in immediate apprehension of such a contact.

  • “Intention” in the context of assault, means that the act is not accidental, but motive is immaterial.
    • It does not matter if the goal of the tortfeasor was merely to scare the victim or if the act was meant as a joke.
    • The tortfeasor need not have intended for the contact to be harmful or offensive, only to have intended the actual contact.
  • “Reasonable apprehension” in the context of assault, refers to the victim’s reasonable belief that the act will lead to imminent harmful or offensive contact.
    • The victim does not need to prove fear, only that they were aware that such a contact might occur. If the victim and the tortfeasor do not know each other, then the legal standard is what an ordinary reasonable person under the same circumstances as the victim would have believed.
    • If the victim and tortfeasor have special knowledge of each other, this special knowledge may be considered when determining whether the victim’s apprehension was reasonable.
  • “Imminent” in the context of assault, means the threatened harmful or offensive contact must be certain or likely to occur very soon.
  • “Harmful or offensive” in the context of assault, is an objective standard referring to touching that is likely to or capable of causing harm or offending a reasonable person by violating prevailing social standards of acceptable touching.
    • However, an otherwise inoffensive contact may be deemed offensive if the tortfeasor knew the victim was unusually averse to such a contact.
    • There is some disagreement among jurisdictions in regard to the role of consent.

The prima facie case for assault has three components:

  • The defendant acts.
  • The defendant intends to cause the victim to apprehend imminent harmful or offensive contact by the defendant.
  • The defendant’s act causes the victim to reasonably apprehend such a contact.

In tort law, assault is considered an intentional tort. Some jurisdictions label assault as attempted battery. Assault is typically paired with battery as assault and battery.

  • In assault and battery, assault refers to the act that causes the victim to immediately apprehend a harmful or offensive contact, whereas battery refers to the act that causes the actual contact.

Assault committed under aggravating circumstances may be raised to aggravated assault

For example:

  • In Vetter v. Morgan, the Court of Appeals of Kansas held that “[the defendant’s] threat and the acts and circumstances surrounding it could reasonably put someone in [the plaintiff’s] position in apprehension of imminent or immediate bodily harm.”  
  • In California, under § 240 of the Penal Code, assault is “an unlawful attempt, coupled with a present ability, to commit a violent injury on the person of another.”

[Last updated in June of 2022 by the Wex Definitions Team