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The Burden of Proof in Personal Injury Cases

You’ve likely heard the term “beyond a reasonable doubt” when referring to evidence in criminal cases. However, civil matters have a lower burden of proof. In a personal injury case, the injured party must prove that the defendant is liable for the damages listed in the claim. The extent to which a plaintiff must prove fault differs depending on what kind of damages they are seeking.

What is Preponderance of the Evidence?

In personal injury claims and other civil cases, the standard of proof is often referred to as the “preponderance of the evidence.” This standard requires that the plaintiff have better or more convincing evidence than the defendant does. The plaintiff must have enough evidence to show that there is a greater than 50% chance that the defendant caused the damages the plaintiff suffered.

For example, if a car accident victim is able to prove that the other driver ran a stop sign, causing them to collide, this evidence might meet the burden of proof for their case. Evidence for this claim might include eyewitness statements, traffic cameras, or body damage on the two vehicles. If the victim’s injuries were a result of this car accident, they would likely be entitled to financial compensation for their medical bills and other expenses related to the accident.

Other types of evidence that can help substantiate a plaintiff’s claims:

  • Photographs from the scene of the accident
  • Police reports
  • Statements made by the at-fault party after an accident
  • Medical records regarding the victim’s injuries and medical history
  • Testimony of health care providers

In general, people in public owe each other a “duty of care,” or a reasonable amount of attention, caution, and prudence. Each person has the responsibility to avoid causing harm to others or their property. The plaintiff must prove that the defendant violated their duty of care to win the case.

Microphone with attorney in the background


The Issue of “More Likely Than Not”

You may also hear the preponderance of the evidence in civil cases referred to as “more likely than not.” This is because the plaintiff must prove that it is at least 51% likely that their version of events is true. In a personal injury case, if the jury is convinced that the defendant’s negligence more likely than not caused the plaintiff’s injuries, the plaintiff will win the case.

What are Punitive Damages?

In most personal injury settlements, the money involved is a form of compensation for the damages the victim suffered. These are referred to as “compensatory damages.” They are meant to pay for the victim’s medical bills and other expenses, as well as compensate them for non-economic losses, such as pain and suffering.

However, punitive damages are also sometimes awarded in personal injury lawsuits. Punitive damages are meant to punish the at-fault party for extreme or intentional dangerous behavior and discourage others from participating in that same behavior in the future. Punitive damages are rarely allowed in personal injury cases, unless the victim can prove that the defendant acted with gross negligence or intentional malice.

The evidence standard for punitive damages differs between states, but it is higher than the standard of proof for compensatory damages. Rather than simply needing the preponderance of the evidence, the plaintiff must provide clear and convincing evidence for their version of events.

What is Clear and Convincing Evidence?

In order to prove a fact by clear and convincing evidence, a plaintiff must show that it is highly more likely to be true than untrue. For punitive damages, a 51% likelihood is not enough evidence. The plaintiff’s version of events must be highly probable in order for punitive damages to be awarded.

For example, if a drunk driver caused an accident that killed another motorist, punitive damages may be awarded on top of the compensatory damages in the wrongful death claim. However, the plaintiff would need clear and convincing evidence that the defendant was, in fact, under the influence.

In order to meet the “clear and convincing” standard of proof, the plaintiff will need more or better evidence than they would for compensatory damages.

Does the Defendant Have to Meet a Burden of Proof?

In general, the defendant in a personal injury case does not have the burden of proof. The plaintiff is the one bringing the case, so they must prove their story is true. However, a defendant will likely provide evidence of their own in order to introduce doubt into the minds of the jury regarding the plaintiff’s version of events. There are also certain cases where the burden of proof is shifted onto the defendant.

Shifting the Burden of Proof

There is one circumstance where the burden of proof shifts to the defendant. An affirmative defense is a set of facts that acknowledge the plaintiff’s claims, but mitigate the consequences for the defendant’s actions. If the defendant presents an affirmative defense, the burden of proof is shifted to the defendant. Some examples of possible affirmative defenses are:

  • The statute of limitations has expired
  • The plaintiff assumed the risk of being injured
  • The jurisdiction of the court does not extend over the case
  • The defendant’s actions were done to avoid greater harm

The defendant must provide evidence for these claims to meet the standard of proof.

What to Do After an Accident to Help Your Case

After any accident, it’s important that you take the following steps to protect yourself and provide evidence for your eventual personal injury claim:

Check for and document injuries

Make note of any pain you are feeling and take pictures of any visible injuries. Seek medical attention as soon as possible. If an ambulance is summoned to the scene of the accident, the medical team can check your injuries for you. If injuries are minor and no ambulance is called, you should still see a doctor as quickly as possible. Some injuries may be hidden or may progress gradually. A doctor will check for any injuries you may not see or feel immediately. They will also document your treatment.

Take pictures of the scene

Photographs provide compelling evidence in personal injury claims. Take pictures of any vehicles involved from multiple angles. Be sure to also get pictures of the accident scene as a whole. Make note of weather and traffic conditions at the time of the accident.

File a police report

Many insurance companies require a police report in order to file a claim. Even if the accident does not seem serious, call your local non-emergency line and ask for a police officer to come to the scene. The officer will ask questions of those involved and document the facts surrounding the accident.

Exchange information with the other party

Be sure to get the other party’s name, phone number, address, and insurance information. Gather the contact information of witnesses to the accident, in case they need to provide a statement later.

Report the accident to your insurance provider

Even if you end up filing a claim against the other party’s insurance company, you need to report the accident to your own insurance. Depending on your policy, they may cover some expenses until you receive a settlement and are able to repay them.

Consider hiring a personal injury lawyer

An experienced personal injury attorney has the knowledge necessary to offer legal advice, build your case, file a claim, and negotiate a settlement. You can file the claim yourself, but an attorney can make the process easier and less stressful as you recover from your injuries.

How a Personal Injury Attorney Can Help

After an accident, it’s easy to feel stressed and overwhelmed. You are likely trying to deal with pain, property damage, medical bills, and insurance companies all at once. A personal injury lawyer can help you receive the compensation you deserve for the following:

An attorney can help you access adequate medical treatment, get into a rental car, navigate the recovery process, and understand what evidence is necessary for your case.

The Advocates personal injury law firm is a team of caring, competent professionals who are ready to help you throughout your entire case. When you hire an Advocate, you get up-front, honest communication, compassionate care, and fierce representation. Call or chat online with a live attorney for a free consultation. Don’t go through tough times alone. The Advocates are here to help.