What Is the Meaning of Malicious Intent?

By Art Smithers - Updated June 17, 2017
Lawyer and judge speaking next to the criminal in handcuffs

The concept of malicious intent appears in both criminal and civil cases; it is a way of describing the state of mind of a person at the time certain acts were committed. Malice arises out of the notion that deliberate acts are more serious than merely negligent ones. In a criminal case, if a jury finds that the defendant acted with malice, the court can impose a longer prison sentence. In a civil case, a malicious act may justify imposition of punitive damages.

Malicious Intent or Negligence

Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes defined malice as acting intentionally with knowledge of the harmful consequences. The difference between a malicious act and a negligent one can be subtle, however. Someone who deliberately hits someone with his car has acted intentionally, or with malice. The same person who injures a pedestrian because he lost control of his vehicle on a wet road is merely negligent. The difference lies in the mental state of the actor -- a bad driver on a wet street most likely harbors no intent to injure anyone.

Malicious Intent and Criminal Law

All crimes require proof of the defendant's intent, but the most serious crimes are those where there is evidence of malice. A defendant who deliberately kills his victim does so with malice because death was the intended outcome. Some jurisdictions punish this type of act with life sentences, or even death. Manslaughter, on the other hand, usually occurs through negligence, meaning that the defendant acted recklessly without specifically intending to kill the victim. An example is Florida's crime of drunk driving manslaughter, where the victim's death is caused by the defendant's negligent act of driving while intoxicated. Manslaughter is punishable in Florida by up to 15 years in prison.

Malice in Civil Law

A tort is a wrongful act that causes injury to another person who may sue in civil court to recover monetary damages. One tort that requires proof of malice is the intentional publication of false statements, known as libel. In the 1964 case of New York Times v. Sullivan, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that public figures who seek damages for libel must also show malice by proving that the defendant either knew the statement was false or acted in reckless disregard of the truth.

Punitive Damages for Malice

Monetary damages in civil cases are generally limited to the actual amount lost by the plaintiff. Where a defendant acted with malice, however, the plaintiff may also recover punitive damages. In California, for example, a civil suit for fraud allows punitive damages where the plaintiff can prove the defendant acted with malice through intentional misrepresentation, deceit or concealment of a material fact.

About the Author

Art Smithers is a Florida lawyer who was admitted to the bar in 1985. Now a professional writer, his experience and background include work in business, corporate, estate, juvenile, appellate and family law. Smithers is board-certified in the state of Florida.

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