Types of Intentional Torts
Intentional torts are harms committed by one person against another, where the underlying act was done on purpose (as opposed to harms which result from negligence).
Intentional torts are generally limited to the following acts: assault, battery, false imprisonment, conversion, intentional infliction of emotional distress, fraud/deceit, trespass (to land and property), and defamation. Some courts will also hear an intentional tort case where the defendant intended to commit the act that harmed the plaintiff, but none of the pre-existing categories fit the facts. These different intentional torts are discussed briefly below.
Assault and Battery
Assault and battery are two closely related, but distinct, claims in a civil case. An assault takes place when one person acts intentionally in a way that causes another person to reasonably apprehend (or fear) an immediate harmful or offensive contact. A battery takes place when the defendant’s intentional act actually causes offensive or harmful contact with the plaintiff. So, an assault involves the threat of harmful contact, while a battery involves the actual harmful or offensive touching itself.
False Imprisonment and False Arrest
A defendant commits false imprisonment when he or she forcibly detains the plaintiff or confines his or her freedom of movement. The force used can either be actual use of force or a threat of force. False arrest, which is considered a type of false imprisonment, occurs when the defendant unlawfully detains the plaintiff at the time of arrest, while false imprisonment could be the result of an unlawful detention after a legal arrest or an unlawful detention unaccompanied by an arrest. Note that anybody can be liable for false imprisonment and false arrest, not merely police officers or other authorities. So, a store owner or private security guard may be liable for false imprisonment in some cases.
Conversion is the civil law equivalent of theft. A conversion occurs when the defendant “exercises dominion and control” over the plaintiff’s property without the plaintiff’s permission. Conversion occurs regardless of whether the defendant returned the property to the plaintiff, although damages will go up based on how long the plaintiff was deprived of the property or whether the property was lost or destroyed.
Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress
Intentional infliction of emotional distress occurs when the defendant intentionally or recklessly causes severe emotional distress to the plaintiff by engaging in “extreme or outrageous” conduct. Extreme or outrageous conduct is impossible to define in exact terms, and will generally be left for the jury or judge to decide, but it is broadly described as going beyond all possible grounds of decency and being utterly intolerable in a civilized community.
Fraud is a very broad term that is used to describe a variety of cons, misrepresentations, misstatements, scams, etc. “Deceit” is a more specific type of fraud generally used to describe a defendant’s intentional act of making a harmful misrepresentation to the plaintiff.
A trespass occurs when the defendant intentionally enters the plaintiff’s land or interferes with the plaintiff’s ownership of property. Trespass is an older category of case law and in many states has been replaced by categories like conversion. To be liable, the defendant does not need to know that he or she will enter, or cause an object to enter, the plaintiff’s land or property -- the plaintiff only needs to prove that the defendant intentionally committed the act that led to the entry. However, a plaintiff may recover greater damages if he or she can prove the defendant knew he or she was entering the plaintiff’s land or property.
The defendant commits defamation when she or he makes a false statement of fact (as opposed to opinion) about the plaintiff, to one or more people. To hold the defendant liable for defamation, the plaintiff must also prove that the defendant knew or should have known the statement was false. Generally, a defendant will also be liable for defamation if he or she should have investigated the contents of the false statement before making it. Finally, depending on the type of plaintiff, the plaintiff may also need to prove that the false statement caused some kind of harm.
“Catch-All” Intentional Tort
Some states recognize a “catch-all” intentional tort when the facts of the case do not fit any of the other intentional tort categories discussed above. Although the exact requirements vary from state to state, the plaintiff must typically prove that the defendant harmed the plaintiff and that he or she intended to do so. Some states require that the defendant not merely intend to commit the act that led to the harm, but that the defendant directly intended to harm the plaintiff.