Basics: The Burden of Proof in Personal Injury Claims

Burden of proof is a legal concept that’s critically important in a personal injury lawsuit. The term “burden of proof” refers to the obligation to offer evidence that proves an allegation that’s been made. The amount of proof deemed necessary to do this varies with the type of case.

In a criminal case, the prosecutor must prove beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty of the charges against them. However, in a civil case, such as a personal injury lawsuit, the burden of proof isn’t nearly as heavy. In this article, we’ll discuss how the burden of proof is handled in personal injury cases.

In a personal injury lawsuit, the burden of proof will always fall on the plaintiff. What this means is that it is the plaintiff’s (or the plaintiff’s attorney) obligation to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant was the person or entity who caused the accident that resulted in the plaintiff’s injuries and/or property damage.

“A preponderance of the evidence” is simply legal terminology that means “more likely true than not true”, and we’ll discuss it in a bit more depth in the next section. In the case of a personal injury lawsuit, it’s your attorney’s responsibility to prove that the events as you state they happened more likely than not created the situation that caused your injuries and other damages.

Preponderance of Evidence

If you consider the burden of proof as a scale, when a trial first begins, neither the plaintiff nor the defendant’s side has any weight placed on it. The scale is perfectly balanced. However, at the conclusion of a trial, one side of the scale holds the plaintiff’s evidence, and one side holds the defendant’s evidence. If the “weight” of the plaintiff’s evidence is heavier, the plaintiff wins the trial. If the scale shows the defendant’s evidence to be heavier, the plaintiff loses the trial.

There is no one single formula that will govern whether the burden of proof has been met because each personal injury case is unique. If the evidence against the defendant proves guilt – even if it’s by 51% – the plaintiff should win the lawsuit. In other words, if the jury in a personal lawsuit concludes that there is a 51-100% probability that the defendant’s negligence caused the accident that created the damages, the plaintiff’s attorney has met the burden of proof, and they will win the case. After a decision is made regarding the burden of proof, the judge or jury will proceed to decide the amount of compensation that the plaintiff is entitled to for their damages.

Negligence

Any personal injury case is going to be guided by the legal concept of negligence – basically, who was at fault. The legal concept of negligence has four elements that are to be established before you can win your lawsuit. They are:

  • Duty of care;
  • Breach of duty;
  • Causation; and
  • Damages.

Each of these four elements must be proven by your attorney if you are to win the lawsuit.

Let’s examine each of these elements in turn.

Duty of Care

Your attorney must prove that the defendant owed you a duty to conduct themselves reasonably and cautiously in regard to your personal safety. In the vast majority of cases, this duty is obvious. It tends to be easy to establish that the duty of care exists by a preponderance of the evidence. For example, in the unfortunate event of a car accident, it is easy to establish that the driver of a vehicle has the duty to operate that vehicle with caution to protect the safety of others on and around the road.

Breach of Duty

Breach of duty means that your attorney needs to prove that the defendant failed to uphold their duty of care. Your attorney must provide, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the defendant did not practice reasonable care and caution in regard to your personal safety. The challenge in proving this will largely depend on the events and circumstances surrounding the accident that occurred.

Causation

Your attorney must also prove that the breach of duty was what caused the accident that was responsible for your injuries and property damage. This is called causation, and it means that either what the defendant did or didn’t do must be proven to have caused the situation that resulted in your damages. At times this is very easy to prove, such as the case of a vehicle running a red light and causing an accident. Other times, it can be quite challenging. This is where having an experienced personal injury attorney on your side becomes imperative.

Damages

Damages are the injuries, property damage, and other losses that you suffer after a car accident that wasn’t your fault. Deciding the actual dollar value of your damages is easy if you’re referring to damages that have a finite worth such as medical bills, payroll information proving lost income, and property damage assessments. These are called “special damages and are the easiest to calculate.

“General damages” are damages such as pain and suffering, loss of enjoyment of life, and emotional or mental distress that was caused by the accident. These types of damages do not have a finite worth, and for this reason, they are much more difficult to calculate. Your personal injury attorney will be able to accurately calculate how much these damages are worth so that you will be able to get compensated fairly.

Trust Our Experience

At Sevey, Donahue & Talcott, we have several decades of experience in personal injury law and have successfully handled thousands of cases. Contact us today so that we can use your experience to get you the best possible outcome. You can reach us by phone at (916) 788-7100 or through our online contact page.