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The Action for Assault: A Tort Ahead of Its Time


Historically, tort law has been reluctant to protect mental tranquility alone. For example, courts have not allowed recovery for insult, or for disturbing the plaintiff's peace of mind through distasteful behavior or voicing unpopular opinions. True, some courts have recently begun to redress limited forms of psychic injury, such as infliction of emotional distress and invasion of privacy. But these have gained currency only in the last few decades. If the duration of the common law were an hour, this would represent only the past few minutes.

Assault, however, is an exception to this general principle. The action for assault, which has been with us virtually since the inception of the common law, does allow recovery for interference with peace of mind, even where there is no physical invasion of the victim's person or property. Unlike battery, which requires a tangible, physical invasion, assault protects one form of mental tranquility, the right to be free from fear or apprehension of unwanted contact. In this sense, assault has truly been a tort ahead of its time.

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