Common Intentional Torts, Part 2
Some intentional torts don’t necessarily involve physical harm or the threat of physical harm. Another injury the law protects against is restriction of freedom of movement. The tort of false imprisonment establishes liability for intentionally restraining someone against their will and without legal justification. The confinement must be complete. If there is a reasonable means of escape, it is not considered false imprisonment.
A classic example is bank employees and customers being held hostage by armed robbers. The robbers intend to keep everyone in the bank against their will, and the use of weapons means there is no reasonable means of escape. In such a case, the robbers could be sued for assault for the threat of physical harm, but also for false imprisonment, for keeping people trapped in a specific location against their will.
Some cases of false imprisonment don’t involve physical harm at all. Refusing to provide someone with the ability to escape a physical barrier can be considered false imprisonment in certain situations. In the case of Whittaker v. Sandford[i], the plaintiff boarded a ship relying on the defendant’s promise to allow her to use his yacht to reach the shore if she wanted to leave the boat. When she requested use of the yacht, the defendant refused, effectively trapping her onboard against her will. The court decided this was false imprisonment.
One special exception to false imprisonment is called the shopkeeper’s privilege[ii], which is recognized in some US jurisdictions. This privilege allows a shopkeeper to detain a suspected shoplifter in the store for a reasonable period of time to determine if he or she has stolen store goods. The reason for this privilege is that a store is a place where people regularly come and go, and locating a customer who has left the store would be difficult. Without this exception, a store owner or manager who has reasonable grounds to suspect theft would be forced to commit false imprisonment or to let the suspected shoplifter go.[iii]
Trespass to Land/Trespass to Chattel/Conversion
The category of intentional torts also includes harms to property. The first major property tort is trespass to land. A trespasser is defined as a person who enters or remains on land in possession of another without a privilege to do so. A trespassing claim has two elements, the entry element and the intent element. The entry element just means that someone has entered the property of another without the right to be there. There is no requirement to show that the trespasser has caused any damage. As with all intentional torts, the intent element here does not mean intent to trespass, only intent to enter the land in question. So, if a pedestrian takes a shortcut across the lawn of a large private estate, this would be trespass even if she thought she was on public property.
The other main category of property-related intentional torts concerns interference with personal property. There are two different torts that deal with personal property: trespass to chattel, meaning tangible, movable goods, and conversion. Both require interference with the property of another, by damage or dispossession, which prevents the owner from full use of his or her goods, even for a short period of time. [iv] The difference between these two causes of action is the length and degree of interference or damage to the personal property. If a trespass to chattel is so serious that is effectively deprives the plaintiff from using his or her property, so that it would be fair to force the defendant to purchase the property instead of returning it, that is considered conversion.
Finally, it is important to note that the law does not hold people responsible for all intentional acts which result in harm. There are several categories of justifications for intentional harm, which allow a defendant to avoid legal liability for the harms caused.
Consent is always considered a defense to a tort claim. If the plaintiff knows of the defendant’s intent to act and permits the action, then the plaintiff cannot recover for the resulting harm. However, consent is not always straightforward. The law recognizes that sometimes consent is not explicit, but can be inferred from context. For example, athletes cannot sue each other for battery due to contact, since agreeing to play a sport in which regular contact is expected is considered to be consent to the contact. Another circumstance in which the law implies consent would be a doctor treating an unconscious patient, since it is assumed that the patient would consent if he or she was able to do so.
The other important defenses to intentional torts are self-defense and necessity. These defenses are relevant when the defendant intends the action, but does so in order to prevent harm to people or property. In a case where someone reasonably believes he or she is facing imminent bodily harm, that person has a right to self-defense. Self-defense allows someone to use force that is reasonably necessary to protect him or herself. This means if a pedestrian turns into an alley, and is surprised by a person brandishing a knife and demanding her money, she may use reasonable force to escape the situation, and need not fear being sued for assault and battery.
The defense of necessity is similar, but it applies to interference with land or personal property. In an emergency, if the only way to prevent serious harm to a person or property is by trespassing on someone else’s land or using their personal property, a defendant who does so is protected by the doctrine of necessity. However, while an act may be justified on the grounds of necessity, this does not release a defendant from all liability. If someone causes damage in the course of protecting a person or property, he or she is liable for the damage. The defense of necessity only protects one from punitive damages, and from nominal damages, which are damages awarded to a plaintiff due to violation of property rights. The exception to this is a case of public necessity, when there is danger to the public or the community as a whole. In such cases, the defense of necessity is absolute, and one who takes protective measures in such situations is not liable for any damages caused by his or her acts.[v]
[i] 110 Me. 77, 85 A. 399 (Me. 1912)
[iv] See Russell-Vaughn Ford, Inc. v. Rouse, 206 So.2d 371 (Ala. 1968)