In every personal injury case, the plaintiff will have to prove that the person they are suing is responsible for their injuries. The “burden of proof” is an evidentiary threshold that refers to the level of proof the plaintiff must meet to convince the judge or jury that the defendant is at fault for their injuries and should be held legally responsible for them.
The Burden of Proof in Personal Injury Lawsuits
While the state must prove each element of a criminal case “beyond a reasonable doubt,” personal injury lawsuits are civil claims and the plaintiff has a much lower burden of proof. The burden of proof in civil cases is “by a preponderance of the evidence,” which means that the plaintiff must convince the jury that it is more likely than not that the facts are what he or she is stating. In other words, “by a preponderance of the evidence” basically means that the jury believes the chance that the plaintiff’s account of the facts is at least 51% correct.
The burden of proof applies to each individual element of a cause of action and the plaintiff must meet it in each element to win their case. For example, a negligence claim has four elements: duty, breach, damages, and causation. Thus, a plaintiff bringing a negligence claim will have to prove that the defendant owed them a duty by a preponderance of the evidence, that the defendant breached that duty by a preponderance of the evidence, that they suffered damages by a preponderance of the evidence, and that the defendant’s breach was the cause of those damages by a preponderance of the evidence.
Does the Burden of Proof Apply to the Defendant?
The burden of proof rests on the plaintiff alone. The defendant is not required to prove that their version of facts is true, nor are they required to convince the jury of an alternative version of the facts than the plaintiff presents. All that is necessary for the plaintiff’s case to fail is for the jury to believe that the chances that the defendant’s version of the facts is inaccurate by 50% or more.
The defendant may present evidence of facts that are contradictory to the plaintiff’s account, but the jury does not need to be convinced that the defendant’s version is the most accurate one. As long as the defendant’s version of the facts casts enough doubt on the plaintiff’s version that the jury does not believe that the plaintiff’s version is “more likely than not” true, the plaintiff will lose the case.
However, there is an exception to this rule where the defendant has asserted an affirmative defense. An affirmative defense means that even if the plaintiff is successful in proving each element of their claim, the defendant nonetheless proves other facts that defeat the claim. To be successful in an affirmative defense, the defendant must prove each element of the defense by a preponderance of the evidence. For example, if the plaintiff was injured during a sporting competition, the defendant might assert the affirmative defense of assumption of the risk. If the defendant successfully proves each element of this affirmative defense, the plaintiff’s claim will fail even if they have also proven every element of their claim.