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Under Utah law, "[a]n assault is an act '(a) . . . intending to cause a harmful or offensive contact with the person of the other . . . or an imminent apprehension of such a contact' by which '(b) . . . the other is . . . put in such imminent apprehension.'" Tiede v. State, 915 P.2d 500, 503 n.3 (Utah 1996) (omissions in original) (quoting Restatement (Second) of Torts § 21 (1965)).
On August 5, 2009, MacFarlane walked into the break room at his workplace where his coworker, Reynolds, was standing in front of the microwave oven. Reynolds was holding a ten dollar bill somewhat loosely in his hand. Reynolds was unaware of MacFarlane's presence. MacFarlane approached Reynolds from behind and, without touching Reynolds, quickly snatched the ten dollar bill. Reynolds immediately spun around and faced MacFarlane. MacFarlane then stated, "That was too easy," and returned the ten dollar bill to Reynolds. As MacFarlane began to walk away, Reynolds struck MacFarlane, splitting his lip. MacFarlane asked why he hit him. Reynolds replied, "You pissed me off." Shortly after this incident, the two interacted with a larger group of employees outside, and the employees joked around and completed their break. The two men were together at an offsite employee lunch some days later, and on multiple occasions after the incident Reynolds sought out and voluntarily spoke with MacFarlane in MacFarlane's work area. Nevertheless, the incident was reported to the parties' supervisor. During the ensuing investigation, Reynolds reported to the supervisor that the incident was "nothing" and that any contact between the parties was accidental. Reynolds was ultimately punished with a one-day suspension without pay for striking another employee. Thereafter, Reynolds received medical treatment for anxiety, which Reynolds explained to his physician had resulted from difficulties at work. Nearly one year later, Reynolds filed a complaint against MacFarlane, alleging assault and intentional infliction of emotional distress. At a bench trial, the parties stipulated to the dismissal of Reynolds's claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress, but Reynolds moved to amend his complaint to include a claim for battery. The court granted Reynolds's motion. After hearing the evidence, the trial court found MacFarlane "to be more credible in that [his] testimony was more consistent and was corroborated by multiple parties." Accordingly, the court based its findings of fact largely on MacFarlane's testimony. The trial court concluded that Reynolds had not met his burden of proof to show that MacFarlane had committed an assault or a battery against him and then dismissed the case with prejudice. Reynolds appealed.
Did the trial court err in dismissing Reynolds’ assault claim against MacFarlane?
The court concluded that the trial court correctly ruled that Reynolds was not in imminent apprehension of harmful or offensive contact because he was not aware of MacFarlane's presence until after MacFarlane took the ten dollar bill from Reynolds's hand. In other words, Reynolds could not have been in apprehension of a physical contact without having been aware of MacFarlane's impending action to grab the ten dollar bill before MacFarlane completed the act of taking the bill. Accordingly, Reynolds did not prove that MacFarlane committed an assault against him, and the trial court correctly dismissed his assault claim. As regards the claim of battery, the court concluded that MacFarlane's act of taking the ten dollar bill held loosely in Reynolds's hand was sufficient contact to constitute the contact element of battery, notwithstanding the fact that MacFarlane did not touch Reynolds's body. When held in his hand, the ten dollar bill was connected to Reynolds such that when MacFarlane snatched the bill from Reynolds, MacFarlane's act resulted in offensive contact with Reynolds's person. The intent element of battery was also met in this case because the trial court found that MacFarlane intended to take the bill from Reynolds's hand when he acted. ("[T]he only intent required to commit a battery is the intent to make a contact, not an intent to harm, injure, or offend through that contact."). Accordingly, the court concluded that the trial court erred in dismissing Reynolds's battery claim because the court's factual findings establish both elements of the claim.