Evidentiary Standard and Burden of Proof in Civil Cases
Criminal proceedings and civil cases work differently. In a criminal case, the prosecution must prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that a defendant committed an offense. It’s an extremely rigorous standard. Civil cases are a little less stringent, but they operate on the same general assumption: The burden of proof rests on the person making the accusation. How much proof do you need at trial if you are bringing a personal injury suit against an individual or company?
The Preponderance of the Evidence
In a civil proceeding, the injured victim must prove a case by a “preponderance of the evidence.” For a personal injury suit, this requires the plaintiff to provide enough evidence that their claim is more likely true than untrue. In other words, you must convince a jury that it’s “more likely than not” that the incident occurred in the way you described.
The preponderance of the evidence at the beginning of a trial is neutral. Think of the trial as tipping the scales in favor of one party over another. If your attorney presents enough evidence to tip the scales even slightly in favor of your version of events, the jury will rule favorably on your case. There is no specific formula that determines whether your case has enough evidence for a guaranteed victory. Rather, your attorney might tell a jury they must rule in your favor if they believe there is at least a 51% likelihood of truth. In civil law, the evidentiary standard is between 51% to 100% likelihood of probability.
The Four Elements
How does your attorney prove your version of events is more likely to be true that that of the defendant? Your attorney must prove the defendant (person causing your injuries) committed negligence. There are four elements of negligence that pertain to establishing a preponderance of the evidence in a personal injury case:
- Duty of Care. First, you must prove the defendant owed a duty to use reasonable caution with regard to your safety. For example, motorists owe a duty of care to other drivers on the road, doctors owe a duty of care to those they treat, and property owners owe a duty of care to anyone who enters their premises lawfully.
- Breach of Duty. Next, you must prove the defendant violated his or her duty of care in some way. This requires providing evidence that another reasonably careful person would have acted differently given the same circumstances. For example, most reasonably careful people would not get behind the wheel of a car after drinking too much alcohol.
- Even if a person breaches his or her duty of care, it doesn’t matter unless it leads to injury. The next step in proving negligence involves providing evidence that a breach of duty was the legal cause of injury.
- Finally, plaintiffs must prove their injuries led to specific damages. These could involve medical bills, lost wages, loss in earning capacity, or nontangible losses such as pain, suffering, and mental anguish.
Together, these four elements make up the foundation of proving a personal injury claim. You’re likely to win your case as long as your attorney proves it was “more likely than not” that these elements are true.