Assault, False Imprisonment, and Torts to property

This week in torts we continue to discuss intentional torts, as we will for much of the first part of the course. Our tort du jour today (I don’t know french, but I think i was just redundant there) is assault. The assignment for tomorrow’s class also includes false imprisonment and torts to property. The reading has a case covering each of these intentional torts.


To fully understand the tort of assault, I think that it’s important to differentiate the difference between a tort and a criminal act. I only do so at this point because assault, like some of the other intentional torts, also have a corresponding criminal act in most jurisdictions. These are different claims, carry different burdens of proof, and in some jurisdictions have different elements. The results of each are different as well. There is a penalty to the defendant in a criminal proceeding that is typically a fine to the state, possibly jail time or some probationary sentence, and occasionally restitution to the victim. The victim in a criminal proceeding is represented by the State, whereas in a tort claim they are now the plaintiff, and represented by private counsel. The tort system is really about one thing: money, and the damages that allow for a monetary recovery to the plaintiff.

Cullison v. Medley, 570 N.E.2d 27 (Ind. 1991).

This is a case in which plaintiff, Cullison, allegedly meets a young girl and invites her to come to his home and “share a Coke,” and inquiry that apparently disgusts the girl and angers her family once they learn of the offer, which as described in the case is somewhat sketchy. However, later that evening Cullison is in bed in his trailer park domicile when he hears a knock at his door. After getting dressed, he finds several family members of the young girl in his living room, one of which has a gun, and another who allegedly pats her pocket to which Cullison is to imply that she has a gun. Through the course of the exchange, Ernest, who has the holstered gun, several times threatens to “jump astraddle” of Cullison. Cullison’s claim for assault, seeking monetary damages of course, is based on the emotional distress that is caused by these threats to his life. In trial court, defendant(s) Medley file for summary judgement, and are successful. This is somewhat based on the fact that the damages claimed by Cullison are strictly emotional, and there is no physical harm done to him. On appeal, this court finds differently, and denotes more of the theory behind the elements of assault. The court looks to an almost 90 year old case in holding “an assault constitutes ‘a touching of the mind if not of the body.'” Kline v. Kline, 158 Ind. 602 (1901). They solidify that the threat of a battery(unwanted touching), and not an actual battery itself constitute the tort of Assault. They bring back our favorite “reasonable person standard” to conclude that a jury could reasonable conclude that the Medleys intended to frighten Cullison when surrounding him and threatening bodily harm upon him. They remand the case back for a jury to determine whether or not a reasonable person in Cullison’s position would feel the same way.

One of the key points in this case seems to be the imminent or immediate danger that the plaintiff feels as a result of the assault. Essentially, in order to have been assaulted in a tortuous manor, one must feel the apprehension against the harm happening immediately, and not as a result of a future threat of battery.


False Imprisonment:

McCann v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 210 F.3d 51 (1st Cir. 2000).

From my limited understanding, this case is the classic example of false imprisonment. Here there is a family who is shopping in a wal-mart and as they are leaving are apprehended by employees of the wal-mart, staying that they are suspected of shoplifting. In this particular instance, the children were identified as those who had previously shoplifted in the past at the store. The staff members physically blocked the family from leaving the store, and guided them to a room for investigation. At the time the family though the police was being called, but the Wal-Mart employees were bringing in some sort of loss control agent who had investigated the shopliftings, who verified that these kids were not the ones who committed the prior act. The trial court awarded the family $20,000 in compensatory damages for the confinement. The elements of False Imprisonment are as follows:

1. Intent to confine another

2. Actually confining another

3. Confining another within boundaries fixed by the actor

4. Of which the victim is conscious of the confinement or is harmed by it

It is important to note that the elements merely stipulate intent, not any type of bad motive or malicious intent.

Upon appeal, the court finds that Maine law seems to have somewhat different elements which require the jury to find “actual physical restraint” but find that the law may take that phrase too literally, and essentially changes the interpretation of it, affirming the ruling of the trial court.

Torts to property:

The book breaks down three different torts to property which involve direct application of force, which are:

Trespass to Land- intentionally entering the land of another, or intentionally causing an object to enter the land of another.

Conversion of chattels- The intent to “exercise substantial dominion overt the chattel” which essentially means to take something as if it were one’s own. This doesn’t necessarily mean theft, although it sounds like it at first glance.

Trespass to chattels- Interfering with the enjoyment of property, which causes harm.

There isn’t much in depth discussion of these torts to property in the book, so I look forward to class discussion to solidify some of the concepts, and will update accordingly.



3 thoughts on “Assault, False Imprisonment, and Torts to property”

  1. Elements of Assault, as defined by Cullison v. Medley:
    1) Any act of such a nature as to excite an apprehension of a battery may constitute an assault. (Prosser and Keeton On Torts, 5th ed. 1984)

    2) The apprehension must be one which would normally be aroused in the mind of a reasonable person. (Prosser and Keeton On Torts, 5th ed. 1984)

    3) The tort is complete with the invasion of the plaintiff’s mental peace. (Prosser and Keeton On Torts, 5th ed. 1984)

    1. Here are the Assault elements as presented from the Professor’s Slide:
      1) Person Acts
      2) With Intent
      a) to cause contact that is harmful or offensive
      b) OR cause imminent apprehension of contact
      3) and creates a reasonable apprehension of contact

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