To win a personal injury lawsuit, the plaintiff has to meet a “burden of proof” requirement. That is, the plaintiff has to present enough evidence to satisfy the judge or jury that the defendant more likely than not caused injury to the plaintiff.
When considering the burden of proof, the first step is to determine which party has responsibility for proving his or her side of the facts. The second step is to consider the level of proof the party has to offer, or how much convincing it will take for the judge or jury to accept that version of the case.
Which Party Has the Burden of Proof?
In personal injury cases, the injured party has the initial burden of proof. Consider this example. In many personal injury cases, the plaintiff claims injury because the defendant either committed some act on purpose or was negligent. Let’s say that Jane invited Martha to lunch. When Martha arrived, she stepped on an action figure that Jane’s son had left on the front porch. Martha fell down and broke her arm. To convince the judge or jury that Jane was negligent, Martha has to prove the following four elements:
- Jane had a duty to Martha to keep her home safe and to remove any conditions that could cause an accident.
- Jane breached that duty when she failed to pick up the action figure.
- Martha broke her arm because Jane had failed to remove the action figure.
- Jane can pay Martha $5,000 to compensate her for the broken arm.
What Level of Proof Is Necessary?
“Beyond a Reasonable Doubt”
Many people are familiar with the burden of proof in a criminal case. The prosecutor has to prove that the defendant committed the crime “beyond a reasonable doubt.” You could also say that no reasonable person would conclude that the defendant had not committed the crime. Fortunately, the standard necessary to convict someone of a crime is much higher than the burden of proof in a personal injury case.
How much effort and evidence will it take for Martha to convince a jury that the elements in her civil case are true? In most civil cases like this “slip and fall” personal injury case, the plaintiff has to prove each element by a “preponderance of the evidence.” This means that on balance, the judge or jury believes that Martha’s version of the facts is more likely to be true. Another way to say this might be that the judge is at least 51% convinced that Martha proved that she broke her arm because of Jane’s failure to tidy up before Martha stepped on her porch.
“Clear and Convincing”
Another standard or level of proof applied in California personal injury cases is “clear and convincing evidence.” To meet this level of proof, the plaintiff must leave someone with a firm belief that it is highly probable that the plaintiff’s claims are true. “Clear and convincing proof” falls somewhere between the criminal standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt” and the more common “preponderance of the evidence.” The courts apply the “clear and convincing” standard when the plaintiff seeks punitive damages and accuses the defendant of actions that involve fraud, malice, or oppression.
The attorneys at Russell & Lazarus, APC have helped hundreds of injured clients. They apply years of experience to designing successful trial strategies in personal injury cases of all types. Determining the correct standard of proof and how to apply it in the courtroom is one part of the expert care you’ll receive when you contact Russell & Lazarus, APC.
When a plaintiff has the burden of proof, the defendant does not have to prove nothing. It is entirely up the plaintiff to put on enough evidence to convince the judge or jury of her position. Of course, even though it’s not necessary, many defendants will put on evidence in an attempt to weaken the plaintiff’s case or prove another set of facts.
There is an exception to this rule. For some causes of action, a defendant can plead an affirmative defense that if proved will negate the plaintiff’s case. Even if the plaintiff proves every element of her case, she can’t win if the defendant offers enough evidence to prove that she should not be held responsible.
For example, in our slip and fall case, after Martha proves each of the elements in her case, Jane asserts a defense called “assumption of the risk.” She wants to prove to the jury that just before Martha climbed to the porch, Jane told her to be careful because she had not had a chance to pick up the toys her son had strewn about. If Martha acknowledges that but continues up to the porch, she assumes the risk that she could step on a toy and hurt herself.
Just as Martha has to prove her case by the preponderance of the evidence, so too does Jane. But if Jane is successful, her affirmative defense will win over Martha’s original case.
Russell & Lazarus Is Here to Help
If you’ve been injured, take advantage of the years of experiences and compassionate care of the attorneys at Russell & Lazarus, APC. Contact us today to learn how we can help you protect your rights.