Ruth Lee Johnson J.D.

So Sue Me

The Difference Between Assault and Battery

One is psychological; the other physical.

Posted Apr 09, 2015

"Assault and battery" is a phrase that we hear often, to the point where "assault" and "battery" are used almost interchangeably, at least colloquially. But is there actually a legal difference between the two? 

The answer is yes. The key is that battery is physical and assault is psychological.

Battery Protects a Physical Interest

The definition of "battery" will vary slightly across jurisdictions, as well as between tort law and criminal law. However, the most basic and common definition of battery goes along the lines of "an intentional physical contact with a person without his or her consent that results in bodily harm or is offensive to a reasonable sense of dignity."

This is a broad definition. It can include anything from a punch in the face to an unwanted hug to a rude jostle between strangers passing on a narrow sidewalk.

There are many interesting legal nuances to this definition. For example, the physical contact has to be intentional, but the harmful nature of the physical contact does not have to be intentional. This means that if I hug my friend not knowing that she does not want to be hugged, I could be liable for battery even though I did not intend to harm or offend her; it is enough that I intended to hug. Also, "physical contact" does not need to involve a body part of the offender. If I hit you with a stick or throw a T-shirt at you, that could be battery, even though I have not touched you myself. Courts have even held that blowing cigarette smoke in someone's face could constitute battery, or poisoining someone's food. In addition, the legal definition of "person" in this definition includes logical extensions of the person, such as a walking cane.

The key here, however, is that there must be some physical contact for battery to exist. 

Assault Protects a Psychological Interest 

As with battery, the definition of "assault" will vary slightly across statutes and case law, but the most basic and common definition is "an intentional act putting a person in imminent apprehension of an offensive or harmful physical contact."

In other words, you assault someone when you put them in the position of psychologically anticipating that they will be subject to battery. Examples of assault may be raising a fist, brandishing a weapon, or even making a verbal threat with some indication that you will follow through. 

There are a few nuances here, too. For example, the defendant does not have to intend to actually commit battery. If I swing a baseball bat at someone in order to scare him, I could still be liable for assault even if I did not intend to actually make contact. Another quirk here is that "apprehension" does not necessarily mean fear. If I threaten to punch a professional wrestler, he might not be afraid of me. But as long as he anticipates the punch, I have assaulted him. 

Examples of Assault and Battery

Before you commit battery on someone, he or she will usually see you, and anticipate the battery. Thus, "assault and battery" usually come together. However, this is not always the case. Keeping in mind that battery is physical and assault is psychological, consider the following examples:

Assault & Battery

Romeo and Hamlet are involved in a heated argument when Romeo decides to hurt Hamlet. He picks up a chair and hits Hamlet in the face with it. Hamlet saw the chair coming but was unable to avoid it in time. Romeo has committed both assault and battery.

Assault; No Battery

Romeo and Hamlet are involved in a heated argument when Romeo decides to hurt Hamlet. He picks up a chair and tries to hit Hamlet in the face with it. Hamlet, however, has quick reflexes and successfully ducks to avoid the chair. Romeo has committed assault, but not battery.

Battery; No Assault

Romeo and Hamlet are involved in a heated argument. Romeo's girlfriend, Juliet, is walking by and notices that Hamlet has upset Romeo. Feeling defensive of her boyfriend's feelings, Juliet decides to exact revenge on Hamlet. She stealthily sneaks up behind him and hits him in the head with a chair. Juliet has committed battery, but not assault.

Conclusion

There are many other examples that can be used to draw the distinction between assault and battery. An example commonly used in law school is that of Snow White's kiss. To begin with, an uninvited kiss from a stranger can be considered an intentional physical contact that is offensive to a reasonable sense of dignity—in other words, a battery. However, because Snow White was sleeping, she did not anticipate the kiss in any way. So Snow White could sue the Prince for battery, but not assault.  

Now that you are armed with the basic legal definitions of assault and battery, you may be extra vigilant in spotting examples in fairy tales, news stories, and everyday life.

If you feel that you have been subjected to assault and/or battery yourself, please call the police or contact your attorney immediately.

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Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. You should contact your attorney to obtain advice with respect to any particular issue or problem. Use of and access to this blog or any of the e-mail links contained within the site do not create an attorney-client relationship between the author and the user or browser. The opinions expressed at or through this site are the opinions of the individual author and may not reflect the opinions of any law firm or Psychology Today.

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