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Posted on October 29, 2021 by in In Self Defense

What is “Great Bodily Injury”

What is “Great Bodily Injury”

When deadly force is justified against an unarmed attacker

After an armed citizen intervened to stop a violent kidnapping in Redding, California, the kidnapper, Carl Dudley Hulsey was apprehended and later pled guilty to a number of charges, including “corporal injury and assault with force likely to cause great bodily injury.” Most of the time, concealed carriers encounter the term “great bodily injury” in the context of the justification for the use of deadly force — that is, an armed defender must have a reasonable fear of imminent death or great bodily injury before resorting to a firearm. The trouble is, for most people, the definition of “great bodily injury” is a little fuzzy, which is a problem because that definition becomes very important during a self-defense scenario, especially when an armed defender is confronted with a serious unarmed threat. We call that “the armed defender’s dilemma.”

The Hulsey case gives us some insight into what constitutes “great bodily injury.” Hulsey’s wife had recently fled, seeking refuge from her abusive husband at One Safe Place. She asked her sister to accompany her as she returned to the marital home to retrieve some personal belongings. Presumably, they didn’t think Hulsey would be there, but he was. He flew into a rage, and among other acts of violence, according to a report in the local newspaper, Hulsey struck the sister in the head with a brick “then started to strangle the sister with his knee until she lost consciousness.”

Firearms instructor Tatiana Whitlock frequently addresses questions about great bodily injury from her students. “Many people are amazed to read the definition of what serious bodily injury means,” she says. “It reads like a horror movie. It does not discuss an owie, a boo-boo, a chipped tooth, a broken pinky finger, hurt feelings, or crushed pride. It really comes down to disfigurement, dismemberment, serious injury to a bodily organ . . . permanent disfigurement or extended convalescence necessary for recovery of health.”

In the Hulsey case, the brick he used to beat his wife’s sister was certainly sufficient for causing permanent disfigurement, brain injury, and very possibly death. In this context, a brick, wielded by someone with the ability and intent to cause harm, is a weapon capable of great bodily injury. We also know Hulsey “strangled the sister with his knee until she lost consciousness.” Criminal defense attorney and CCW Safe National Trial Counsel Don West says, beyond the fact that strangulation can, in some cases, cause permanent injuries, “if you lose consciousness or if you’re not alert anymore, you become exceptionally vulnerable. While on your way to the loss of consciousness, you certainly have the right to defend yourself.”

What makes the Hulsey case such a clean example of “force likely to cause great bodily injury” is the type of force used was objectively very severe, he had clear intent to cause harm, and there was the assumed disproportionality of force of a man overpowering a woman. Not all physical assaults are quite so clear.

We’ve explored the Micheal Drejka case in depth. Drejka was unexpectedly and violently shoved to the ground by Markis McGlockton. While there have been cases where a violent shove killed someone, Drejka was not a frail old man, and he survived the fall with little physical impact, so the shove alone was not “force likely to cause great bodily injury.” Prone on the ground, however, Drejka suddenly found himself at a significant disadvantage if McGlockton chose to press the attack. A few swift kicks to the torso or head could have done real damage.

That’s when Drejka pulled his pistol, and in a legal analysis of this case, Don West suggests Drejka may very well have been justified in the defensive display of his weapon at this point in the conflict. The fact that McGlockton responded to the defensive display by changing his posture and stepping back, however, complicates the assessment. Firearms instructor and CCW Safe contributor Steve Moses reminds us that an attacker — especially an unarmed attacker — must have the ability, the opportunity, and the intent to cause immediate harm to warrant a use of force response. By backing away from Drejka’s defensive display, McGlockton demonstrated an immediate shift in intent, and he was physically distancing himself, reducing the opportunity to attack Drejka further. Although the imminent threat of great bodily injury had passed, Drejka fired anyway, and he was later convicted of manslaughter.

The lesson for concealed carriers is that when assessing the threat of an unarmed attacker, you have to be honest regarding how seriously someone is willing and able to hurt you before you respond with deadly force. Don West says, “Just because somebody puts their hands on your shoulders and shakes you a little bit, or you get into a slapping contest, you haven’t risen to the level where someone could objectively say, ‘yeah, you were facing a clear, imminent, credible threat of great bodily injury or death.” If you can safely walk away from an encounter with an unarmed assailant, that is best. If your attacker follows and presses the attack, you’ll have to make the best judgment you can based upon what you know about what constitutes great bodily injury — and with the understanding that if you choose to use your firearm, that decision will be scrutinized by law enforcement.    


Shawn Vincent is a litigation consultant who helps select juries in self-defense cases, and he manages public interest of high-profile legal matters.  If you have any questions for Shawn, or would like more articles like this, let us know belo