The Element of Intent: How the Court Determines Your Thoughts

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By Mariah Mandy, Staff Writer

An Age Old Excuse

When we were young, the most common response to getting in trouble was “I didn’t mean to.” We used that phrase for all types of circumstances—spilling drinks, making messes, or even hitting our siblings. Sometimes, that excuse would get us out of trouble, because accidents really do happen. However, these accidents are minor, and the consequences are small.

Amazingly, even when serious accidents occur, the defendant may still be able to resort to the same excuse he gave as a child. “I didn’t mean to” may still be the phrase that gets you out of situations with more injurious consequences.

The Role of Intent in Torts

There are seven torts in law that require the common element of intent: assault, battery, trespass to land, trespass to chattels, conversion, false imprisonment, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.[1] With each of these torts, the defendant must have shown intent in order for the plaintiff to recover.[2] Because determining liability is contingent on the element of intent, defendants can deny their intent, similar to the way they denied fault in causing accidents when they were young.

Though a defendant may repeatedly state that it was not his intention to assault a plaintiff, the courts have a two-part test for determining the actual intent of the actor. First, did the actor have the purpose or desire? Additionally, did the actor have knowledge of substantial certainty that a contact will occur?[3] Note that the second prong does not require knowledge of substantial certainty that harmful contact would occur, only that some form of contact with the plaintiff would result.[4] When analyzing this two-pronged definition, the court considers whether the individual’s outward expressions manifested an intent.[5] In other words, the court looks at the individual’s actions.

When “I Didn’t Mean To” Contradicts Your Actions

In the case of Garratt v. Dailey, a five-year-old boy was charged with battery when he moved the chair where his aunt had been sitting. When his aunt went to sit back down, she fell and suffered injuries. Despite that the boy did not want his aunt to be hurt, the court held that he may have satisfied the element of intent. The boy did not possess the purpose or desire. However, he may have known with knowledge of substantial certainty that contact would occur, because he attempted to move the chair back when he saw his aunt about to sit down. The court ultimately remanded the case for clarification.[6]

While the court was not capable of looking into the boy’s mind for intent, it could look to his actions to determine whether he satisfied the element. Similar to other accidents a five-year-old boy may cause, such a boy could easily look to the judge and say, “I didn’t mean to.” But, if the court determines his actions manifested an intent, he nevertheless satisfies one of the elements of battery. On the other hand, if the court is unable to find intent, then “I didn’t mean to” may very well be the language that deflects liability.




[1] Weaver, Bauman, Cross, Klien, Martin, Zwier “Torts Cases, Problems, and Exercises”

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

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