general intent

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General intent is an actual intent to perform some act, but without a wish for the consequences that result from that act. Depending on the offense alleged, both tort plaintiffs and criminal prosecutors may need to prove that the defendant acted with general intent. 

Although tort law in the United States generally follows a negligence standard, establishing a cause of action for an intentional tort requires showing that the defendant acted intentionally.

  • As established in the seminal case Vosburg v. Putney, possessing general intent is sufficient to satisfy the intent requirement of intentional torts.  

In the field of criminal law, general intent is sufficient to satisfy the mens rea (criminal intent) for some but not all crimes. For example:

  • Intent to restrain an unwilling party is sufficient to establish the mens rea for the crime of false imprisonment, even if the defendant erroneously believed they had the authority to do so.
  • On the other hand, general intent is insufficient to satisfy the mens rea for first degree murder because first degree murder requires an intent to kill, not just take an action which leads to death.

[Last updated in January of 2023 by the Wex Definitions Team]