The Martial Artist’s Guide to Legal Self-Defense and Liability in Physical Altercations

Martial artists have the same right to self-defense as anyone else. Learn how to legally and financially protect yourself when using martial arts in a fight.

Martial arts originated in Japan as forms of attack or self-defense.

Combat training techniques are applied in a systematic way for defense, military and law enforcement, and physical, mental and spiritual development.

Martial artists are trained to confront and defeat imminent threats of bodily harm or death.

Widely-practiced forms of martial arts include:

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu
Krav Maga

Kung Fu
Muay Thai
Tae Kwon Do
Tang Soo Do
Mixed Martial Arts

We all have a right to defend ourselves, but are the rules different for a skilled martial artist? Here’s what you need to know about protecting yourself in a fight legally and financially if you’re an experienced martial arts practitioner.

Are You a Deadly Weapon?

While it’s entertaining to watch movie stars play martial artists who must register as deadly weapons, there is no state with laws that require this.

It’s only in the U.S. territory of Guam that martial art experts are required to register:

“Any person who is an expert in the art of karate or judo, or any similar physical art in which the hands and feet are used as deadly weapons, is required to register with the Department of Revenue and Taxation.”

It’s against Guam’s laws not to register if you’re trained as a martial artist. Once registered, if you’re convicted of using martial arts to physically assault another person you are automatically guilty of aggravated assault.

Self-Defense: When to Pull Your Punches

Using your martial arts skills outside the confines of your dojo or fitness center can have serious repercussions, including potential criminal and civil liability.

In self-defense, the purpose of martial arts is to protect oneself or another person from an imminent threat of bodily injury or death.

The martial artist must be fully aware of the consequences of intentionally or unintentionally misusing their skills. A misuse of skills can result in criminal prosecution, a civil judgment, or both.

Specifically, you must understand the legal difference between a controlled, necessary and proportionate force to repel an attack and an excessive and disproportionate force.

In other words, you must only use the amount of force necessary to protect yourself. Using excessive force can land you in jail or civil court on assault and battery charges.

Each case of self-defense is reviewed individually and subjectively, though in some cases the threat is so real and imminent as not to be questioned. If a would-be robber comes at you with a six-inch switchblade, the imminent threat of grave harm is obvious.

Martial Arts in Protection of Others

The right to defend yourself is legally extended to the protection of others. You may use your martial arts skills to protect another person from the imminent threat or harm or death.

Whether you’re protecting a child or family member, or acting as a Good Samaritan on behalf of a stranger, the same rules of reasonableness apply. You must only use the amount of force necessary to dispel the threat.

Try to Neutralize the Threat

To reduce the likelihood of misusing your martial arts skills, first make every attempt to diffuse and neutralize a threat without violence.

If you’re unable to neutralize an aggressor without force, or if there isn’t enough time to try to diffuse the threat, then you can safely use your martial arts skills to repel the attacker.

Make sure you use only the amount of force necessary to repel the assault. For example, if the robber with the switchblade got his arm broken as you disarmed him, that’s probably reasonable. Once the robber is down and disarmed, inflicting further injury is excessive.

Criminal Charges for Using Martial Arts

You are criminally liable when you wrongfully and willfully use your skills to repel an attack that is non-existent, minimal, or not imminent.

A person who is held criminally liable for excessive and disproportionate use of force may be arrested and charged with criminal assault.

Misdemeanor assault can result in a probationary sentence, a fine of several hundred dollars, or incarceration in a county jail for one or two years.

Felony assault charges can result in a fine of several thousand dollars and long-term incarceration in a state or federal penitentiary, or in the event of death, it could result in life imprisonment.

Police Involvement and Criminal Prosecution

The police may become involved in a dispute for any of the following reasons:

  • Police are dispatched to a fight in progress because someone called 911.
  • The assault victim files a complaint with the police.
  • The police come upon a fight in progress while on patrol.

Once involved, the police may proceed with any of the following actions:

  • Make an arrest at the scene of the fight.
  • Complete an incident report, submit it to their supervisors for review, and make an arrest if deemed appropriate. The police may take into account the parties’ martial arts or boxing skills, military training, or similar experience.
  • Turn over the investigation to the district attorney, county attorney, or attorney general for further investigation.

A prosecutor who is responsible for an assault case may proceed with any of the following actions:

  • Dismiss the case due to insufficient evidence to prosecute.
  • Issue an arrest warrant for the alleged assailant.
  • Submit the case to the grand jury because the severity of the case qualifies as a felony.

Examples: Criminal Liability vs. Appropriate Force

Think about the following scenario and the appropriate response for a martial artist:

You are a Taekwondo practitioner. You and your friend Sue are driving out of a restaurant parking lot when you collide with Tom’s car. No one is physically hurt, and the damage to the vehicles is minimal.

While surveying the damage, Tom screams at you and Sue, threatening to beat the tar out of you and file a lawsuit against you.

Appropriate levels of response:

  • You remain calm and offer to exchange insurance information. Tom calms down. You acted appropriately by neutralizing the situation.
  • You realize that Tom is drunk and overcome his attempt to physically attack you by knocking him to the ground with one strike. You acted appropriately by using proportionate force to repel the attack.
  • Tom takes a swing at Sue, and you thwart his attempt to physically attack Sue by knocking him to the ground with one strike and rendering him momentarily unconscious. You acted appropriately by defending Sue with proportionate force to repel the attack.
  • Tom grabs a lead pipe from his car and is about to strike you and Sue. You overcome his attempt to physically attack by striking Tom repeatedly, causing him to fall to the ground. While Tom is unconscious, you call 911. You acted appropriately by using proportionate force to repel Tom’s obvious intent to inflict serious bodily injury.
  • Tom pulls out a long knife and lunges at you. After knocking Tom to the ground, you and Sue run to your vehicle. Tom comes at you with the knife. This time, you strike Tom repeatedly and consequently kill him. You acted appropriately by using proportionate force to defend yourself and Sue from an imminent threat of serious bodily injury or death.

Criminal Use of Excessive Force:

  • Tom is cursing and threatening but stays away from you. You use your Taekwondo skills to seriously injure Tom because he has threatened to hurt you physically. You overreacted to a benign threat and are now subject to arrest and criminal prosecution.
  • Tom pulls out a long knife and lunges at you. You disarm Tom by breaking his arm. Once he’s down and disarmed, you grab his head and twist, breaking his neck and killing him. Your continued use of force after the attacker was neutralized exposes you to prosecution for aggravated assault and manslaughter.

What is Your Civil Injury Liability?

You are civilly liable when you act in a negligent, willful, or wanton manner that results in property damage or another person’s injuries.

You may not be criminally liable for your disproportionate or excessive use of force, but the person who suffered injuries or property damage may file a lawsuit against you in a civil court for damages.

Damages can include medical and therapy bills, out-of-pocket medical expenses, lost wages, and an amount for pain and suffering. Damages can also include the costs of ruined property like clothing, glasses, and cell phones.

In a criminal trial, the two parties are the government and the person accused of breaking the law. The accused person is only found guilty if there is enough evidence of the person’s wrongdoing “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

In a civil trial for an injury lawsuit, the parties are the person complaining of being injured, and the person accused of negligently or purposely causing the injuries. The party with the “preponderance of evidence,” meaning the most proof of their side of the story, wins the case.

Keep in mind that even though martial artists are not “deadly weapons” in the eyes of the law, in a civil case you’ll be in front of a jury who may be conditioned to see you as some kind of super-ninja. You can bet the lawyer for the other guy will work that angle to make you look bad.

Example: Civil Liability for Excessive Force

You are a mixed martial arts (MMA) practitioner. One day, upon leaving your gym, you’re confronted by two drunk and aggressive men demanding your wallet. They threaten to hurt you. Although you don’t see any weapons, you believe they will seriously harm you, and you fear for your safety.

You knock both men to the ground with your MMA skills. One of them runs away, but the other remains on the ground. After several minutes, he starts to get back up, so you attack him, causing serious bodily harm, including a broken arm and nose, cuts to his eyes, and a concussion.

Following your attack, you call 911. The paramedics take the man to the hospital. Later, he’s criminally charged with attempted robbery.

You do not face criminal charges, as the police investigation determined you acted in self-defense of a crime.

After the injured man’s criminal trial, he files a $100,000 personal injury lawsuit against you. The lawsuit alleges that you used unnecessary, disproportionate, and excessive force to inflict serious bodily injury and that your actions amount to willfully negligent conduct.

During the trial, the jury hears all of the evidence, including testimony from you, both men who attempted to rob you, the police officers, and the paramedics. You testify that you are an MMA expert with five years of cage fighting experience.

The jury decided the injured man was partially at fault for his injuries because he tried to rob you. However, the jury decided you are also to blame because you used excessive force when it wasn’t necessary.

You could have easily left the scene after you initially subdued the attackers. Instead, you remained at the scene for several minutes after the threat had been neutralized, and willfully caused serious bodily injury.

Understanding Shared Civil Liability

How does a robber get to sue you if he gets hurt in the process? It’s because, in most states, individuals have a right to seek compensation for their injuries, even when they are to blame for the circumstances.

The injured robber wouldn’t have been able to get a dime out of you in Alabama, Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia, and the District of Columbia, thanks to their Contributory Negligence rules. An injured person who’s as little as one percent to blame for the circumstances leading to their injury has no right to compensation under Pure Contributory Negligence rules.

Comparative Negligence or modified comparative negligence is used in most states.

Under pure comparative negligence rules, your opponent has the right to pursue an injury claim even if they’re the one most at fault for the fight.

In modified comparative fault states, the other person won’t be eligible to recover any compensation if they are equally to blame (called the 50% rule) or more to blame (called the 51% rule) than you.

Stand Your Ground Doctrine: No Duty to Retreat

Commonly known as the “Stand Your Ground” doctrine, 25 states allow the use of reasonable force, including deadly force, to protect your own life or the life of another person without having to retreat from the place you occupy at the time of the real or perceived threat.

You do not have to be in your own home, so long as you have a legitimate reason to be there.

States with “Stand Your Ground” laws:


New Hampshire
North Carolina

South Carolina
South Dakota
West Virginia

Additionally, 22 states also provide immunity from civil liability under certain self-defense situations, meaning the person who attacked you can’t sue you if they end up getting hurt.

States with additional laws for immunity from civil liability:


New Hampshire
North Carolina
North Dakota

South Carolina
West Virginia

On the other hand, six states have decided your attacker can still sue you, even if the person you hurt was convicted of attacking you in the first place: Hawaii, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, North Dakota, and Tennessee.

Castle Doctrine: Defense of Home

The Castle Doctrine allows a person who is in their home or vehicle to use reasonable and proportionate force, including deadly force, against an intruder to prevent the intruder from forcibly entering the residence.

According to the Castle doctrine, the occupant must legitimately and reasonably believe that the intruder intends to commit a felony and that deadly force is necessary to repel the intruder.

It’s not a free pass to use deadly force against an intruder, but the Castle Doctrine may be used as a legal defense if you’re sued or arrested for seriously or fatally injuring someone with martial arts.

Here’s a list of states incorporating Castle Doctrine principles.

Most states prohibit the use of deadly force in defense of property. It’s important to keep in mind that most states consider family pets to be property. You can’t legally attack someone who hurt or killed your dog.

Liability Protection Tips for Martial Artists

The best way to avoid liability is to avoid confrontation. If you can safely walk away, then do it.

When a physical altercation is unavoidable, try to:

  • Give warning that you intend to fight back. The attacker may decide to back off.
  • Make clear you are not the aggressor. You don’t have to let the attacker hurt you first, but don’t strike unless you are certain of imminent physical danger.
  • Use appropriate force for the circumstances, taking into consideration if the attacker has a weapon, if they’re much smaller than you, significant age differences, and so on.
  • Use only the amount of force necessary to stop the attack. Then stop. You can immobilize the person while waiting for police but must avoid inflicting further injury.
  • Think about how you will react to potential threats, before you’re forced to use martial arts outside the dojo.
  • Know the laws for your state.

Map of State Laws: Self-Defense Legislation

Each state has different laws governing self-defense. Click on your state to read the relevant statutes. If you’re an experienced martial artist, you must know the law to protect yourself from liability in a physical altercation.



Charles R. Gueli, Esq. is a personal injury attorney with over 20 years of legal experience. He’s admitted to the NY State Bar, and been named a Super Lawyer for the NY Metro area, an exclusive honor awarded to the top five percent of attorneys. Charles has worked extensively in the areas of auto accidents,... Read More >>