Mike Tyson, Battery, Planes, and Provocation

It was recently reported that former professional boxer Mike Tyson punched fellow airline passenger Melvin Townsend III. More details are emerging, and it appears that there are disputed versions of the event (regarding, among other things, whether Townsend threw a water bottle at Tyson).

Let’s assume that this case proceeded to litigation against Tyson, and that the law of New York would apply. (While Townsend may have a negligence claim against the airline for its personnel’s failure to prevent or mitigate the harm, here I’ll discuss his claim against Tyson only.)

First, any claim against Tyson would likely sound in “battery” and/or “assault”.

“Under New York law, an assault is an intentional placing of another person in fear of imminent harmful or offensive contact, and a battery is intentional wrongful physical contact with another person without consent.” Palmer v. City of New York, 2021 WL 4480572 (E.D.N.Y., 2021)

Second, New York courts have held that “no provocative act, conduct, insult, or word, if unaccompanied by an overt act of hostility, will justify an assault no matter how offensive or exasperating the provocative conduct may be” (Dennis v. Stout, 24 A.D.2d 461, 260 N.Y.S.2d 325 (N.Y.A.D. 2 Dept. 1965)), and that plaintiff’s culpable conduct is relevant to the issue of damages (Pirodsky v Pirodsky, 179 A.D.2d 1066, 579 N.Y.S.2d 524, 1992 WL 15794 (N.Y.A.D. 4 Dept. 1992).

So, if this case were litigated under New York law, the issues that would need to be addressed include:

(1) whether Tyson’s conduct amounted to “assault” and/or “battery”;

(2) whether Townsend’s conduct preceding Tyson’s punching him was an “overt act of hostility”; and

(2) whether and to what extent Townsend’s actions immediately preceding the punching amounts to “culpable conduct” sufficient to reduce his damages.

Stay tuned.

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