The legal term assault refers to an attempt by one person to cause serious bodily harm to another person. This may be through a deliberate act, or through irresponsible actions that show a deliberate lack of respect for the victim’s safety. Assault is also defined as carrying out threat of bodily harm, or having the ability to carry out the threat. Assault is both a crime and a civil wrong, and may result in criminal charges and/or civil liability. To explore this concept, consider the following assault definition.

Definition of Assault

  1. Noun. An unlawful physical attack, or threat of attack, on an individual, with or without actual injury.

Origin: 1200-1250        Middle English asaut


What is Assault

While the exact definition of assault varies from state to state, it is generally defined as an attempt to cause physical injury to someone, and in most jurisdictions includes making threats, or engaging in threatening behavior, causing the individual to fear bodily harm. The most essential element of assault is an act intended to cause bodily harm, or intended to cause fear of bodily harm.

For an act to be considered assault, it must be obvious. Threatening words are not enough to be considered assault, unless they are combined with an ability, or perceived ability, of the perpetrator to make good on the threat. For example, a threat to cause harm, combined with raising a fist, or brandishing some type of weapon, is enough to cause fear of harm to the victim. This raises the threat to the level of assault.

For example:

Roger becomes angry with Ted, and bellows, “I just want to drop you off a tall building!” This might be seen as a threat, but unless the pair are standing on the roof of a tall building, Roger hardly has the ability to carry it out. This argument could not be classified as assault.

If, on the other hand, Roger instead threatens “I’m gonna break your face,” while lifting a fist and taking a step toward Ted, it is reasonable for Ted to believe Roger will actually harm him. Even if Roger does not actually hit Ted, this threat could be considered an assault, and result in criminal charges, or in civil liability should Ted choose to file a civil lawsuit.

Simple Assault vs. Aggravated Assault

The laws of most states classify acts of assault as either simple assault or aggravated assault. Which classification an assault falls under depends on the severity of injury or harm that is caused, or the harm that could have been caused if the perpetrator had followed through with his threat. Some states use a classification by degree system recognizing different levels of assault, with first degree assault being the most serious, and third degree least serious.

Simple Assault

Simple assault is defined as an act that causes minor injury, or involves a limited threat of violence. In many states, shoving or slapping someone during an argument would be classified as simple assault. In addition, a threat of doing some minor act of violence, such as punching someone, may constitute simple assault. In each case, simple assault may result in misdemeanor assault charges.

Aggravated Assault

Aggravated assault is a felony, and may arise from an assault committed with a weapon, or an assault or threat of harm committed with the intent to commit a more serious crime, such as rape. In addition, assault perpetrated on an individual in a protected class, such as a child or elderly person, is classified as aggravated assault.

For example:

Marge is a nursing assistant working in a nursing home, caring for elderly and disabled people. Marge has no patience for elderly people who make her job difficult, and handles patient Joe roughly, leaving bruises on his arms. As an elderly person in need of daily care, Joe is considered a protected person, and Marge has a duty in her position as a nursing assistant to provide competent care, and to not harm her patients. Marge has acted with reckless disregard for Joe’s safety, and so has committed aggravated assault, which is a felony.

Sexual Assault

Sexual assault is a catchall term that refers to any acts of a sexual nature perpetrated on a person without their consent. This may include such acts as touching, sexual intercourse, or penetration by an object. Any act of physically forcing or coercing someone to engage in a sexual act against their will is considered sexual assault. Sexual assault it a crime of violence, having an element of brutality, force, fear, and coercion. Certain sexual acts, such as rape, are specifically named in the law, each having its own more narrow definition of the crime.

Assault and Battery

At one time, the crimes of assault and battery were separate, in which assault applied to a threat of, or attempt to, harm someone. Battery then, required the perpetrator to actually offensively touch or physically strike or harm the victim, basically carrying out the assault. Modern laws in most states no longer make a distinction between assault and battery, the phrase “assault and battery” having become something of a colloquialism.

Assault With a Deadly Weapon

Assault with a deadly weapon involves combining a physical assault with the use or attempted use of a weapon or object capable of causing serious injury or death. Assault with a deadly weapon is always a felony, regardless of the type of weapon used. Objects that may be considered deadly weapons include such everyday things as a kitchen or pocket knife, a golf club, a wrench, screwdriver, or other tool, rocks, canes, boots, or even an automobile. In many states, an individual who knows he is HIV positive may be charged with assault with a deadly weapon for biting someone, or having unprotected sex with someone.

Assault as a Civil Case

Most people know that a civil lawsuit can be filed for injuries sustained in an accident, such as a car accident or slip and fall. In some cases, however, the act that caused an injury was intentional, not accidental. In the eyes of the court, assault is an “intentional tort,” the can be taken to civil court to obtain compensation for physical and emotional injuries sustained, as well as any other damages caused by the act.

A civil lawsuit for assault may come of any extent of injuries, from little or no physical injury, to grievous injuries requiring lengthy hospital stays, and potentially the need for lifelong care. Damages awarded in a civil lawsuit may be a victim’s best option for obtaining reimbursement for medical expenses, as well as punitive damages for pain and suffering. A victim may file a civil lawsuit whether or not the perpetrator has been charged with assault as a crime, and even if the perpetrator has been convicted of the crime.

For example:

While walking home from work one day, Julia is grabbed by a man and pulled behind a shed, where he attempts to rip her blouse off. Julia fights the man and gets away, attracting the attention of a bystander, who calls police. During the struggle, Julia suffered a number of injuries, including a broken arm, and several lacerations requiring stitches. One of those lacerations leaves an ugly scar on Julia’s face. The man, Nicholas, is arrested and charged with aggravated assault, as it is clear he assaulted Julia with the intent of raping her.

Regardless of the outcome of Nicholas’ criminal trial, Julia may sue him in civil court, asking the court to award her money to pay for her medical expenses. Not only can Julia ask for medical expenses she incurred immediately after the incident, including emergency room fees, but she can seek payment of future related medical expenses, including cosmetic surgery to reduce the appearance of the large scar on her face.

While the prosecutor in Nicholas’ criminal case will need to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he is guilty of aggravated assault, Julia need only prove that it is more likely than not that Nicholas is responsible for her injuries. If she is successful, it is likely the judge will also award her punitive damages for pain and suffering caused by Nicholas’ intentional act.

Criminal Penalties for Assault

The criminal penalties for assault vary depending on the laws of the state in which the crime is committed, as well as the specific circumstances of each case. Punishment for assault ranges from fines and community service or probation to imprisonment. In all jurisdictions, aggravated assault incurs a stiffer penalty, as does assault committed against someone in a protected class. Many people do not realize that assault against a public servant, such as a firefighter, paramedic, police officer, or teacher, carries a stiffer punishment.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Civil LiabilityResponsibility for payment of damages, or for other court-imposed penalties in a civil lawsuit.
  • Criminal Offense – An act punishable by law.
  • Felony – A crime regarded as more serious than a misdemeanor, punishable by imprisonment for more than one year, or by death.
  • Jurisdiction – The legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice.
  • Misdemeanor – A crime less serious than a felony, punishable by a fine, probation, or imprisonment for less than one year.
  • Punitive Damages – Money awarded to the injured party above and beyond their actual damages. Punitive damages, also referred to as “exemplary damages,” are ordered for the purpose of punishing the wrongdoer for outrageous misconduct in a civil matter.
  • Tort – A wrongful act that results in injury to a person, or harm to a person’s property or reputation, entitling the injured party to compensation.