While mere words, however abusive, insulting, vexatious or threatening, will not in themselves justify the use of a deadly weapon, such words if accompanied by an actual offer of physical violence reasonably warranting fear of serious bodily harm, may be an integral part of a plea of self-defense against liability for an assault and battery. In determining whether there was reasonable cause for the apprehension of serious bodily harm, the difference in age, size, and relative physical strength of the parties to the controversy is a proper matter for consideration.
An athlete and another man brought a car to a parking lot where repairs were made. After picking it up and paying the repair charges, they drove around for several hours drinking beer. They returned to the lot to express their dissatisfaction with the repairs. The operator of the lot stated that the repairman was not his employee and ordered them to leave. When they did not leave, the operator got a shotgun and fired it toward the ground striking the athlete in the foot. In the athlete's battery action the operator testified that the men were intoxicated and had threatened him; he claimed that he feared for his safety and did not intend to harm anyone. The court entered judgment for the operator finding that he had sustained his plea of self-defense. The court found that the testimony for the defense was more credible, that the athlete became a trespasser who could be forcibly ejected when he refused to leave, and that it was a mere accident that he was struck in the foot.
May a defendant's claim of self defense based on threats be sufficient given the totality of the circumstances?
The defendant, in order to support his plea of self-defense must not have been at fault in provoking the difficulty ( State v. Davis (1922) 121 S.C. 350, 355, 113 S.E. 491) but, by demanding that the plaintiff and his companions leave his parking lot, the defendant acted within his legal rights and can in no way be regarded as provoking the difficulty in this case. As the Court stated it in State v. Burnett (1947) 210 S.C. 348, 351, 42 S.E.2d 710, "A person on his own premises has the right without any reason whatever, has the right to request or order any person to vacate his premises, and such person if so ordered or requested to leave, it is his duty to leave reasonably promptly; and, if he does not, the owner or the person in possession lawfully, has the right to use such force as may be reasonably necessary to put him off, and such person is not deemed to have brought about the physical encounter by so doing."