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Can Serena Williams’ Line Judge Sue Her for Assault?

At the U.S. Open, on September 14th, at the Arthur Ashe Stadium in Queens, NY, Serena Williams may have committed the tort of “assault” against one of the line judges at the tournament. In her semi-final match against Kim Clijsters, a line judge called a “foot foul” against Ms. Williams. Incensed, Ms. Williams approached the line judge with her racquet out and screamed, “If I could, I would take this … ball and shove it down your … throat.” The line judge also stated that Ms. Williams threatened to kill her, which she denied.

Notwithstanding the alleged “death threat,” Serena’s threat of physical violence did take place in New York. So whether the line judge would have a civil tort case against Ms. Williams would be governed by New York law. “Assault,” in New York, consists of:

  1. an intentional attempt,
  2. displayed by violence or threatening gesture
  3. to do injury to, or commit a battery upon,
  4. the person of another.

Clayton v. Keeler, 42 N.Y.S. 1051, 1053 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 1896) (stating that “assault” is “to offer with force and violence to do hurt to another… holding up a fist in a threatening attitude, sufficiently near to be able to strike; advancing with a hand uplifted in a threatening manner, with intent to strike, although the person is stopped before he gets near enough to carry the intention into effect.”).  Pope v. State, 79 N.Y.S.2d 466, 471 (N.Y. Ct. Cl. 1948), aff’d, 99 N.Y.S.2d 1019 (4th Dep’t 1950).

Contrary to the common use of the word “assault,” as a civil tort, assault is merely the visual or auditory threat by one person to do something violent to another person. But assault is not merely an idle threat. It must be some threatening physical act or words done by one person, who is actually capable of doing the threatened physical harm, to another person. For instance, before one commits the tort of assault by actually punching someone in the face, the act of drawing back one’s fist before the punch is thrown, constitutes “assault.” Whereas the actual contact of the fist with the victim’s nose is the tort of “battery.”  6A N.Y. Jur. 2d Assault § 4 .

Furthermore, the fact that assault must be an “intentional attempt” means that the person doing the threatening must actually intend to make physical contactwith the one who is threatened. 6A N.Y. Jur. 2d Assault § 5.

While Ms. Williams “displayed by violence or threatening gesture” a threat “to do injury to, or commit a battery upon, the person of another,” that is not enough. For the line judge to have a civil case against Ms. Williams for the civil tort of “assault,” the threat must indicate “an intentional attempt.” In other words, it must have been reasonable in the circumstances for the line judge to have felt that Ms. Williams actually would have carried out her threat had it not been for the involvement of the other officials who intervened (see minute marker 1:20-2:40 in the video above).

There are probably arguments that could legitimately be made on both sides of this issue. The fact that she approached the line judge aggressively, verbally threatened her with violent acts, and that her approach caused the line judge to run away from her in fear all indicate that her threats were serious enough that she would have actually carried them out had the line judge not fled and the two other officials not approached. This would not be the first case of a frustrated athlete carrying out some violent act.

On the other hand, it could have appeared that Ms. Williams’ threats were merely her way of expressing her frustration at the call, but that she had no intention of actually carrying them out, even momentarily. The issue could be rationally argued either way and would likely be the primary focus of an “assault” litigation were the line judge to decide to sue Ms. Williams.

If you need help with any sort of personal injury matter, whether it be for assault and battery or any other tort, please do not hesitate to contact our office by either e-mailing us or calling 800-344-6431.

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