How strong does evidence have to be to assign liability?
Accident victims often want to know what evidence they need to win their case and recover damages. Although the answer to this question depends on the nature of the case, the applicable burden of proof plays a significant role.
What is the burden of proof?
The burden of proof describes the standard that a party seeking to prove a fact in court must meet in order to have the fact legally established. To put it another way, the burden of proof refers to how convinced a judge or jury must be to accept an allegation as true.
In civil cases, the burden of proof almost always lies with the plaintiff. In criminal cases, the burden of proof lies with the prosecutor.
What is the burden of proof in civil cases?
In the vast majority of civil cases, which include personal injury cases, the plaintiff has the burden of proving their case by a preponderance of the evidence.
Under the “preponderance of the evidence” standard (sometimes called the “more likely than not” standard), the burden of proof is satisfied when the plaintiff convinces the judge or jury that there is a greater than 50 percent chance the claim is true.
“A preponderance of the evidence is such proof as leads the fact-finder to find that the existence of a contested fact is more probable than its nonexistence.”
A.B. v. Slippery Rock Area School District (Pa.Cmwlth.2006).
Let’s take a look at an example:
After leaving a bar in Seattle, Washington, Jordan ran a red light and crashed into Lindsey, who was crossing the street.
Lindsey suffered a serious spinal cord injury. She used Washington’s dram shop law to sue the bar where Jordan had been drinking.
Dram shop laws hold establishments that sell alcohol responsible for serving intoxicated patrons who later cause an accident.
Under Washington’s dram shop law, an establishment can be held liable for damages caused by an intoxicated patron if the following three conditions are met:
- The establishment sold alcohol to a patron who was “apparently under the influence” or under the legal drinking age,
- The patron consumed the alcohol sold by the establishment, and
- The consumption of alcohol was the cause of the injury, death, or property damage.
To establish that the bar sold alcohol to Jordan when he was apparently under the influence, Lindsey presented evidence, including security footage from the bar and witness testimony, that Jordan was stumbling and slurring his words when he ordered a drink from the bartender.
To find in favor of Lindsey, the jury doesn’t need to be 100 percent certain or even 75 percent certain that Jordan appeared to be under the influence when he was served at the bar. Under the preponderance of the evidence standard, the jury only needs to be convinced that it’s more likely than not that Jordan was visibly under the influence.
In some civil cases, the standard of proof is elevated to a higher “clear and convincing evidence” standard. This standard of proof requires the plaintiff to establish that a particular claim is substantially more likely than not to be true. In other words, the fact finder must be convinced that the contention is highly probable.
States vary with respect to when they require a clear and convincing evidence standard over the preponderance of the evidence standards, but the higher standard is typically reserved for claims involving fraud, breach of contract, or issues related to intellectual property.
What is the burden of proof in criminal cases?
Under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, a defendant in a criminal case cannot be convicted of a crime unless their guilt is proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
The “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard is much higher than the “preponderance of the evidence” standard and the “clear and convincing evidence” standard used in civil cases, which makes sense given that the stakes in a criminal case are typically much higher.
So what does it mean to prove something beyond a reasonable doubt?
This beyond a reasonable doubt standard requires that the prosecution prove its case to a degree that leaves no reasonable doubt in the minds of the judge or jury that the defendant is guilty.
Courts have struggled to define “reasonable doubt” and typically refer jurors to the definition written by Chief Justice Shaw of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court more than a century ago:
“It is not mere possible doubt; because everything relating to human affairs, and depending on moral evidence, is open to some possible or imaginary doubt. It is that state of the case, which, after the entire comparison and consideration of all the evidence, leaves the minds of jurors in that condition that they cannot say they feel an abiding conviction, to a moral certainty, of the truth of the charge.”
Commonwealth v. Webster (1850).
Beyond a reasonable doubt is probably the most well-known standard of proof (just look at the number of books, movies, and shows named after the standard). Nevertheless, other standards of proof may apply to certain aspects of a criminal case.
For example, the “probable cause” standard is used to determine when a police officer may conduct a search or make an arrest. The “reasonable suspicion” standard, which is more lenient than the probable cause standard, applies to situations such as traffic stops.
Understanding the burden of proof isn’t your job as an accident victim. An experienced personal injury attorney will understand the applicable burden of proof and develop evidence to satisfy the burden.