The Slap Heard Around the World
The Will Smith and Chris Rock slapping incident at the Oscars is a good example of the Intentional Tort of Assault and Battery.
Like a car accident case which arises out of the tort of Negligence, the Intentional Tort of Assault and Battery can provide grounds for a civil lawsuit for money damages. However, it is very uncommon to see such a lawsuit because, as an intentional act, Assault and Battery is usually not covered by liability insurance policies. So, with no insurance company backing the person who committed the Assault and Battery, it is often difficult for the victim to recover compensation in a lawsuit. Unless the person who committed the act has significant personal assets, a lawsuit against them is usually a waste of time. This being the case, most injuries arising out of violent intentional acts do not result in lawsuits.
Nevertheless, the Will Smith and Chris Rock slapping incident at the Academy Awards is a good example of an Assault and Battery that could lead to a lawsuit, but in my opinion probably will not. Will Smith is rich, so insurance is not needed to get a recovery, but the injuries are likely not significant enough to lead to a lawsuit.
Let’s pretend that this incident occurred in Pennsylvania and talk about the Intentional Torts of Assault and Battery, which are actually two separate acts.
What is an Assault?
People generally believe that the act of an Assault involves striking another person with fists, feet or a weapon. However, under Pennsylvania law, an assault is something entirely different.
Rather, under Pennsylvania law, an Assault is “an act done with the intent to put another in reasonable and immediate fair fear of harmful or offensive contact that does, in fact, cause such fear.” To commit an Assault it is not necessary that person actually make physical contact with the body of another, it is enough that the person intended to cause fear of such contact.
So, in order to for a defendant to be held responsible for an Assault there are two elements: first, that the defendant intended to put the plaintiff in a reasonable and immediate fear of harmful or offensive contact; and second, that plaintiff as a result of the defendant’s act was put in reasonable and immediate fear of such contact.
In the context of Will Smith and Chris Rock, assume that Will approached Chris and raised his hand in a threatening manner close to Chris’s head. Even without the slap, that would be considered an Assault.
What is Battery?
The tort of Battery is something entirely different from Assault.
A Battery is an act committed with the intent to cause harmful or offensive contact with the body of another and that directly results in the harmful or offensive contact with the body of another. In order for a defendant to be held responsible for committing a Battery there are two elements: first, that the defendant intended to cause a harmful or offensive contact with the body of the plaintiff; and second, that the defendant’s act resulted in harmful or offensive contact with the plaintiff’s body. A body contact is considered “offensive” if it would offend a reasonable person‘s sense of dignity.
Under this definition, Will Smith actions were actually a Battery as well as an Assault since his hand made contact with Chris’s face and a reasonable person would consider that contact offensive.
What Damages are Recoverable for Assault and Battery?
Assuming that someone commits an Assault and Battery, what damages are recoverable under Pennsylvania law? The injured person can sue for physical and emotional pain and suffering, medical bills, lost income (if any) and other out-of-pocket expenses. Also, if the conduct is determined to be outrageous, the victim can also sue for Punitive Damages to punish the actor and deter him from committing such an act in the future.
Again in the context of the Will Smith and Chris Rock incident, it does not appear that Chris suffered any significant physical injuries. However, he could attempt to sue for emotional distress and embarrassment and could even try to make a claim for Punitive Damages given that the Assault and Battery occurred with millions of people watching on TV.
However, in my opinion, it’s extremely unlikely that Chris rock will bring a civil lawsuit against Will Smith. Chris is a wealthy comedian and likely would not want the negative publicity of seeming to try to cash in on this event. It is also likely that Chris feels somewhat guilty for making the insensitive joke. He may also feel bad about arguably provoking Will into committing the act that caused such a stir. In addition, proving actual damages would likely be difficult because of the lack of any serious physical injury. In the end, I expect this all to blow over after Will makes a sincere apology.
Tim Rayne is a Personal Injury Lawyer with MacElree Harvey. For over 25 years, Tim Rayne has been helping accident victims win fair compensation from insurance companies. Tim has Law Office in Kennett Square and West Chester Pennsylvania and also meets with clients at their homes or virtually via Zoom or FaceTime. Contact Tim Rayne at 6108400124 or firstname.lastname@example.org or check out his website www.TimRayneLaw.com.