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The Line Between Self-Defense and Personal Injury

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While the law recognizes the universal right to defend oneself, there are a number of details that affect how a particular action is weighed in the rule of court. The law generally leans toward the preservation of life and dignity, as this is deemed to be the most sacred of all things humane. Physical violence is often frowned upon by law, but it also cannot be denied that there are times when the use of force is necessary.

Personal injury and self-defense are two concepts that can easily be mistaken for one another in court. It’s fairly common for the defense in a personal injury lawsuit to claim self-defense, but how does the law differentiate the people who were rightfully defending themselves from those who purposefully cause other people harm?

The law provides the basic elements that must be present for a successful self-defense claim. These three elements are:

  • Imminent threat
  • Reasonable fear
  • Proportional force

All of these elements must be present for a self-defense claim to prosper. Each of these elements will be explained further below.

Imminent Threat

The element of imminent threat provides that for an act to be in self-defense, it must be established that the actions taken by the defendant were in response to an imminent, and significant threat.

A threat can come in the form of gestures and words. (e.g. approaching the defendant while brandishing a weapon or a verbal threat). However, it’s important to keep in mind that a self-defense claim is only viable if the assailant remains a threat at the moment that the self-defense action was taken.

The moment that the threat is neutralized, any harm that is done to the former-assailant can be treated as an assault. For example, when an attacker is disarmed and restrained, he is no longer considered a threat. If the defendant continues to use force, the defendant then becomes the aggressor.

Reasonable Fear


The element of reasonable fear states that the defendant must be convinced of the threat presented by the assailant, so much so that the fear would prompt any reasonable person to respond in the same manner that the defendant did. In this instance, the perception of danger is given more credence over actual danger.

The rationale behind this is that the perception of danger is cause enough for a person to detect and respond to a threat. A reasonable person would not wait for harm to befall him before responding to the perceived threat.

Proportional Force


The final element of a self-defense claim is that the response of the defendant must have been proportionate to the perceived threat. This means that a defendant may only use lethal force if the threat encountered is potentially lethal. This is especially true for instances when firearms are involved.

Even when a shot is fired preemptively, as long as the defendant reasonably believed that they were about to get shot, this action would still be considered proportional force. It is also important to be aware of the laws that encourage people to exercise their right to defend themselves. Some of these laws are:

The Duty to Retreat

The duty to retreat provides that when faced with a danger, the person assailed must first attempt to flee. It is only when escape is impossible that a defendant may use force to neutralize the danger.

The Stand Your Ground Law

The Stand Your Ground law provides that there is no need for defendants to attempt to flee when assailed. The assailed may use force as long as all the basic elements of a self-defense claim are present and met.

The Castle Doctrine

While some states that impose the duty to retreat may seem like they compromise the safety of their constituents, they often also impose the castle doctrine as a means to strike a balance. The Castle Doctrine provides that residents have the right to use deadly force to protect against a person who unlawfully enters their home. This is based on the rationale that the home is meant to be a safe space, and any person who invades that safe space does so with ill intent, and is therefore deemed a threat to the property owner.

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