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

Personal injury claims can be complex, and no two are the same. That said, all successful cases have one thing in common: the person bringing the claim (or plaintiff) has proven that another person or party is responsible for the accident that caused their injuries.

This may sound straightforward, but what constitutes “proof”?

Understanding the Burden of Proof

In the legal system, the burden of proof is the obligation of one party to prove their case. You’re probably most familiar with this concept in criminal cases, where the prosecution has the burden to prove the defendant is guilty of a crime. The defendant has no burden and is presumed innocent until found otherwise by a jury. That’s why in criminal trials, defendants do not have to present a shred of evidence (although many do). They do not need to prove they are innocent; rather, the onus — or burden — is on the prosecution team to prove guilt.

So, in simple terms, the burden of proof is an assertion of who is responsible for proving a case.

But let’s say you’re in a car accident and you break your arm. You can’t simply take a picture of your injury and another driver’s totaled car and successfully claim the two are linked. Having proof of your injuries and that the accident happened will certainly help your case, but you need more than that.

In other words, you need to meet the legal standard of proof.

The Standards of Proof

In the U.S., there are three standards relating to the burden of proof. These are:

  • Beyond a reasonable doubt
  • A preponderance of the evidence
  • Clear and convincing evidence.

Let’s look at each of these in a bit more detail.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

If you know anything about the law, or even if you’ve only caught the occasional episode of Law & Order, you may have heard the phrase “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This is the legal standard in criminal cases, where the prosecution must prove the defendant committed the crime and leave no reason to believe otherwise. This is the highest standard and can be very difficult to prove. Once all evidence has been submitted, and the jury retires to deliberate, they must unanimously agree that the state has met its burden. If there is any doubt, based upon reason, common sense, and consideration of the evidence (or lack of), they must return a not-guilty verdict.

A Preponderance of the Evidence

The legal standard by a preponderance of the evidence is a much lesser burden compared to beyond a reasonable doubt. A preponderance of the evidence essentially means “more likely than not”, and it’s the prevailing standard for most civil cases, including personal injury lawsuits and libel matters.

For example, in a car accident lawsuit, you must prove more likely than not that the party you are suing caused the accident that resulted in your injuries. On balance, this means you can win a lawsuit by proving that it is 51% likely the other party is at fault, even if there’s room for doubt.

However, just because a preponderance of the evidence is a lesser standard, that doesn’t mean it’s easy to prove. To successfully prove your case, you need substantial evidence that weighs in your favor.

Clear and Convincing Evidence

Clear and convincing evidence is a legal standard that applies to certain civil cases, such as fraud, intellectual property, and breach of contract, as well as some criminal matters. In the recent, much-publicized defamation case involving actors Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, the legal standard was two-fold — by a preponderance of the evidence for the defamation and clear and convincing evidence for actual malice, owing to the celebrity status of the parties.

This was a unique case in that the burden of proof was also two-fold. In most civil cases, the burden is on one party to prove their argument. However, as Heard counter-sued Depp (the plaintiff), she also had her own burden to prove.

If we have a preponderance of the evidence on one end of the scale and beyond a reasonable doubt on the other, clear and convincing evidence sits somewhere in the middle. In essence, it’s evidence that is substantially more likely to be true than not and has a higher degree of believability. Compared to a preponderance of the evidence, the trier of fact (usually the jury, but also the judge in a bench trial) must have a firm belief and conviction in the facts.

Meeting the Burden of Proof in Personal Injury Cases

Meeting the burden of proof in a personal injury case comes down to one thing: proving the defendant’s reckless or negligent actions caused your injuries and resulted in losses. These losses may be economic, such as medical bills or lost income, or non-economic, such as pain and suffering. Meeting this burden can look like this:

  • Proving another driver was speeding, which resulted in them losing control of their vehicle and crashing into you, causing your injuries.
  • Proving a restaurant failed to clean up a spill and put up wet floor signs, which caused you to slip and sustain a back injury.
  • Proving a trucking company encouraged a driver to work longer than legally allowed, resulting in the driver falling asleep at the wheel and crashing into you.

Proving any of these can be challenging, especially if other factors contributed to an accident — such as if other people or parties were acting negligently and were partly at fault.

This means you need strong evidence to support your case, including medical records, witness testimony, expert testimony (for example, from medical experts or accident reconstructionists), photos, videos, and accident reports.

While you can gather this evidence and file a personal injury claim yourself, it can be tricky to discern what’s most relevant for your case if you don’t have a legal background. By working with a personal injury lawyer, you can give yourself the best chance of meeting the burden of proof in your case and securing the compensation you deserve.

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