On Sunday night Oscar Award Winning actor Will Smith made headlines when he unexpectedly took the stage and struck actor/comedian Chris Rock in the face. The moment came just after Chris Rock made a joke about Smith’s wife who suffers from a hair condition called alopecia.
The buzz surrounding the event has the public asking whether there will be any repercussions for Smith. According to the Los Angeles Times Chris Rock has decided not to file a police report or pursue criminal charges against Will Smith. In other words, it appears that for the time being Smith may be free and clear of any criminal consequences. But what blowback could Smith face in a civil context? Did Smith commit civil battery when he struck Chris Rock? Let’s look at the elements of battery.
In California (where the event occurred), the elements of a civil battery can be found from the case of So v. Shin, 212 Cal.App.4th 652, 669 (2013). In these circumstances, Chris Rock is the potential Plaintiff and Will Smith is the potential Defendant The elements of battery in California are as follows:
- Defendant touched plaintiff, or caused plaintiff to be touched, with the intent to harm or offend plaintiff;
- Plaintiff did not consent to the touching;
- Plaintiff was harmed or offended by defendant’s conduct;
- A reasonable person in plaintiff’s position would have been offended by the touching.
There is no question that element one is satisfied. Watching the tape, one can clearly see Smith’s right hand strike the left side of Rock’s face. The sound from the impact can be heard from the microphones that the actors were wearing at the time.
As far as the public is aware, Chris Rock did not expect this to happen. He seemed completely off guard as Smith approached the stage and appeared to be in shock momentarily after he was struck. All in all, element two is almost certainly met as there is nothing showing that Chris Rock found this to be acceptable.
Element three requires us to know Rock’s state of being since the incident. Battery is a personal injury, and we don’t know whether Rock has suffered any injuries. Upon review of the video, the blow to Rock’s face was made with such force that upon impact his head violently swung down and to the right from the momentum of the blow. We can assume that Rock did experience pain in the moment.
If the impact of the blow was strong enough, Rock could have more serious injuries, perhaps even to his cervical spine. These types of injuries are what normally constitute harm in the form of pain and suffering in a personal injury case which in turn translates to general damages. We can only speculate as to whether Rock was offended. Comedians are known for having a thick skin and Rock declined to pursue criminal charges which seems to indicate he was not offended. However, assuming Rock suffered harm, element three is satisfied.
For element four, look no further than photographs and videos of the reactions of the other performers who were present that night. A huge portion of those in attendance at the Oscars have spent time on stage just as Chris Rock did that night. It is fair to say that any one of them, or any member of the general public for that matter, would have been offended by being struck in the face during an event being broadcasted globally.
In sum, yes, it does appear that Will Smith committed civil battery when he struck Chris Rock in the face at the Oscars.
-Justin Wolfe, Attorney at Law