The definition of assault varies by jurisdiction, but generally falls into one of these categories:
1. Intentionally putting another person in reasonable apprehension of an imminent harmful or offensive contact. Intent to cause physical injury is not required, and physical injury does not need to result. So defined in tort law and the criminal statutes of some states.
2. With the intent to cause physical injury, making another person reasonably apprehend an imminent harmful or offensive contact. Essentially, an attempted battery. So defined in the criminal statutes of some states.
3. With the intent to cause physical injury, actually causing such injury to another person. Essentially, the same as a battery. So defined in the criminal statutes of some states, and so understood in popular usage.
Apprehension v. Fear
In this context, "apprehension" does not mean "fear." Rather, to experience apprehension, the victim must believe that the tortfeasor's conduct will result in imminent harmful or offensive contact unless it is somehow otherwise prevented. It isn't necessary that the victim believes the conduct will be effective in making such contact, only that he believes the conduct is capable of making such contact.
Illustrative Case Law
The classic 1349 English case I de S et ux v. W de S exemplifies the necessity of apprehension in an assault claim. When the tortfeasor banged on the door the first time, it was not assault because he did not cause apprehension. When, however, he struck at the plaintiff with a hatchet when she looked out the window, it was assault, because his conduct caused apprehension of harmful contact.
For a modern analysis of assault in action, see Raess v. Doescher.
Last updated in June of 2017 by Stephanie Jurkowski.