A recent self-defense course prompted a question about whether a victim could face legal action as a result of fighting off an attacker.

The course was for women, but self-defense laws are gender-neutral. Whether a victim could face legal consequences depends on what the attacker did and how the victim defended himself or herself.


"The law of self-defense justifies an act done in the reasonable belief of immediate danger. If an injury was done by a defendant in justifiable self-defense, he can neither be punished criminally nor held responsible for damages in a civil action," the Court of Appeals said in a 1941 case.

Key point: The victim must have had a reasonable belief that she was in immediate danger. If a woman walks by and a man says, "Hey, baby, show me your ****," she may be justified in saying she knows baboons with better manners. But it would be difficult for her to argue that she feared immediate danger, unless he made a more aggressive move.

What if she walks on and the man follows her, continuing to make obnoxious or obscene comments? The woman whips out her pepper spray and sprays him with it. If he later sues her for assault, it will be up to a jury to decide whether she was justified in using the spray because she had a reasonable belief that he was about to attack her.

Standard instructions, which the judge gives to a jury before members begin deliberating, say that a victim acted in self-defense if: she actually believed that she was in immediate and imminent danger of bodily harm, her belief was reasonable, and she used no more force than reasonably necessary to defend herself against the threatened or actual harm.

Another scenario: the man continues to follow the woman, who takes no action other than to walk faster and try to reach her car. The man steps up his pace and overtakes her. He reaches out, she ducks, grabs her handgun and fires.

Now she is in the area of law related to when a person may use deadly force in self-defense. Deadly force is the amount of force that could reasonably be expected to cause death or serious bodily harm.

Maryland follows common law — judge-made law — on when the use of deadly force is justified on the grounds of self-defense. First, the woman had a duty to retreat or avoid the danger before shooting, if she safely could.

If she could not safely retreat, she may rely on a 1984 case where the Court of Appeals ruled that a homicide is justified as self-defense if the shooter had reasonable grounds to believe she was in imminent or immediate danger of death or serious bodily harm from the attacker, believed he was going to kill her or cause her serious bodily harm, she was not the aggressor or did not provoke him to follow her and the force she used was not unreasonable and excessive, not more force than the situation demanded.

Donna Engle is a retired Westminster attorney. Reach her with questions or feedback at 410-840-2354 or denglelaw@gmail.com. Her column, which provides legal information but not legal advice, appears on the second and fourth Sunday each month in Life & Times.