Understanding the Burden of Proof in Personal Injury Cases
Have you ever seen a dramatic television courtroom scene where one attorney uses the phrase “beyond a reasonable doubt?” It’s common for films to focus on the term to lend credibility to their dialogue, but this standard of proof does not always apply in every case.
The term “beyond a reasonable doubt” describes the burden of proof required to win a criminal case, but it’s not usually used in personal injury cases. Understanding the burden of proof and how it applies to your personal injury cases could change the way you look at those television and movie scenes. And it could help you if you’re contemplating a civil suit due to injuries you sustained in an accident.
Defining Burden of Proof
The burden of proof is the legal standard required to prove a case in court. Though the concept seems simple enough, it can be complicated because different standards of proof apply to different types of cases.
For example, for criminal cases, prosecutors must prove that the defendant committed the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. This burden of proof is the highest of all proof standards. The prosecution must show that the only reasonable conclusion based on the evidence is that the defendant committed the crime.
In any legal matter, the burden of proof establishes how much evidence one party needs to put forth in order to prove the other party’s guilt or liability in a matter. Further, in claims with multiple elements, the claimant must meet the burden of proof for each element of the charge.
The Burden of Proof Standards for Personal Injury Cases
Civil cases use a different standard of proof known as “preponderance of the evidence.” In personal injury cases, the claimant or plaintiff must prove their claims are “more likely than not” true compared to the defendant’s case. It is a fairly low burden of proof.
Attorneys sometimes explain this standard as showing more than a fifty percent chance that a party is telling the truth. Note that a fifty-fifty chance is not sufficient. It must be more than fifty percent — a preponderance of the evidence.
Further, plaintiffs in personal injury cases must meet the burden of proof for four elements to win.
The four elements for personal injury cases include:
- The defendant had a duty to the plaintiff, meaning that a reasonable person would have done something or not done something in the defendant’s situation to avoid foreseeable injuries to another person.
- The defendant breached the duty by acting or failing to act.
- As a result, the defendant caused the plaintiff injuries.
- The plaintiff sustained damages in the accident or incident.
While the burden of proof standard is far less than what’s required for a criminal case, it can still be tricky for some situations.
Applying Burden of Proof in Personal Injury Cases
Take this fictitious car accident as an example. Plaintiff was driving home from work when the defendant ran through a red light and caused an accident. The defendant was texting on their phone, speeding, and not paying attention to the road.
Like any driver, the defendant had a duty to pay attention to the road, not text while driving, and observe all traffic signals. The plaintiff would argue a reasonable person drives responsibly and focuses on the road—not speed or use their phone while driving.
Next, to prove that the defendant breached that duty, the plaintiff would need to provide proof that the other party ran the red light while texting and speeding. Aside from witnesses and traffic camera footage, phone records and evidence from the scene could help establish a better than fifty percent chance that the defendant breached their duty to the plaintiff.
Would a reasonable person believe that it’s more likely than not that the defendant caused the accident? Generally, some of the same information presented to establish the breach of duty would help prove the causation aspect.
Finally, the plaintiff would need to prove that the accident resulted in the damages they claim. Statements from the scene, medical bills from the time after the incident, and photos are commonly used.
Does the Defendant Have to Meet a Burden of Proof?
The defendant doesn’t have to prove their story is true. They do not have a burden of proof; the plaintiff owns the burden of proof for bringing the case. That doesn’t mean that the defendant shouldn’t provide evidence during the case. It’s best for the defendant to provide contradictory evidence to plant doubt in the minds of the jury concerning the plaintiff’s case.
That said, there is one situation where the defendant assumes a burden of proof. If the defendant asserts an affirmative defense to their conduct, the burden of proof for that defense shifts to the defendant. An affirmative defense allows a defendant to escape liability for a plaintiff’s injuries even if the plaintiff proves the defendant was negligent. In other words, they have a legal defense to their conduct.
They would have to prove the elements of their defense are true, usually by a preponderance of the evidence.
The Burden of Proof in Personal Injury Cases
Remember, the plaintiff must convince the court that it’s more likely than not that their statements are true. If the court thinks it’s forty-nine or fifty-percent likely that the plaintiff is telling the truth, it’s not enough to win the case.
Navigating the particulars of personal injury law can get complicated, especially in terms of the burden of proof and how to prove each element. It may be in your best interest to consult an experienced personal injury attorney to ensure you get the best possible outcome for your case.