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Burden of Proof

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Burden of Proof

The burden of proof is a legal concept used in court cases. It includes a couple of different components. First, it defines which party in a lawsuit is responsible for proving facts related to the case.

It also sets a certain level of proof by which a party must prove their case to be successful.

What Are the Different Burdens of Proof?

The person who initiates a lawsuit is responsible for proving the facts that support their claim for relief. What level of proof they have to meet will depend on the type of case. The burden of proof is usually part of the instructions that a judge reads to the jury before jury deliberations.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

The prosecutor has the burden of proof in a criminal case. Everyone is familiar with the phrase “beyond a reasonable doubt.” That’s the burden of proof required for a criminal conviction. That means the jury can’t convict a defendant of a crime if there is a reasonable doubt as to whether the defendant committed the crime.

If the prosecution doesn’t present enough evidence, or if the defense attorney successfully establishes reasonable doubt, then the defendant should be found not guilty.

Preponderance of the Evidence

The burden of proof in a civil case is not as high as in a criminal case. In civil cases, the burden of proof is called a preponderance of the evidence. It’s a cumbersome phrase that means “more likely than not.” 

This concept is often described by referencing the scales of justice. If the evidence tips even slightly in the plaintiff’s favor, that’s enough for the plaintiff to win.

Clear and Convincing Evidence

This standard is the vaguest burden of proof. It’s often used in trust and estate litigation or guardianship/conservatorship cases. Some states require clear and convincing evidence to show punitive damages are warranted.

Clear and convincing evidence means that the fact-finder must determine that there is a “high probability” that a fact is true. Clear and convincing evidence is a little higher than the preponderance of the evidence standard but not as strict as the beyond a reasonable doubt standard. 

What Is the Burden of Proof in a Personal Injury Case?

Personal injury cases, such as ones filed in connection with a car accident or slip and fall accident, are civil cases. To recover compensation in a personal injury case, the injured party (the plaintiff) must prove that the defendant caused the plaintiff’s injuries by a preponderance of the evidence.

Elements of a Personal Injury Claim

In any lawsuit, a legal claim will consist of elements that you must prove in order to win your case. Most personal injury lawsuits are based on negligence. Negligence is a legal theory that allows you to hold someone financially responsible for certain accidents and injuries.

In order to prevail on a negligence claim, you must prove:

  • Duty: the defendant owed you a legal duty of care
  • Breach: the defendant’s breached that duty by an act or omission
  • Causation: the defendant’s conduct resulted in your injuries
  • Damages: you suffered actual damages as a result of the defendant’s conduct

While any accident often seems like one big catastrophic event, you must prove each element in order to hold the defendant liable.

How Do You Meet the Burden of Proof?

The burden of proof is met by presenting evidence to the trier of fact. Each case is unique, and some cases require different types of evidence than others.

In a personal injury case, evidence used to meet the burden of proof might include:

  • Eyewitness testimony
  • Video footage or photographs
  • Medical records
  • Toxicology reports
  • Expert testimony
  • Maintenance logs
  • Security records
  • Manufacturing designs
  • Employment and payroll records

The evidence is submitted in court, and the opposing side may object on various grounds. They may challenge the evidence to get it excluded from consideration. Or, they may present other evidence that casts doubt as to the truth of the fact at issue.

Does the Defendant Have a Burden of Proof?

Just because the defendant doesn’t have the burden of proof doesn’t mean that they won’t present evidence at trial. They may testify and present other evidence, but they’ll generally be trying to poke holes in the plaintiff’s case and establish doubt.

They may try to tell a different story of the accident – adding details or calling the plaintiff’s facts into question. They might try to assign some of the blame for the accident to the plaintiff. 
Under California law, if you’re partly responsible for an accident, your compensation will be reduced by your portion of blame for the accident. If the defendant asserts that you were responsible for part (or all) of the accident, then they do have the burden of proof to present evidence for facts that establish contributory negligence on your part.