Understanding the Burden of Proof in Personal Injury Cases
You recently ran into the supermarket to pick up a few things for dinner. As you turned down an aisle, you slipped and fell on a puddle of water.
Should you sue the store?
Understanding the burden of proof in personal injury cases may help you make the best decision for you.
What Does Burden Of Proof Mean?
The burden of proof is the level of evidence required to prove a claimant’s case. In criminal law cases, the prosecutor must prove to a jury that the accused is guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
This standard is the highest level of proof; the prosecutor must convince the court that there is no other explanation or conclusion aside from the defendant’s guilt.
Civil cases require a lesser standard known as a “preponderance of evidence.” However, some civil cases, like child custody and fraud claims, require a more stringent standard known as “clear and convincing evidence.”
Additional issues can complicate matters and even shift the burden of proof in a case. For example, if a defendant raises a claim about part of the claimant’s case, the accused takes on the burden of proof to support their argument.
What is a Preponderance of Evidence?
As noted, many civil cases, including those involving personal injuries, set the evidentiary standard at a preponderance of evidence.
Though it sounds fancy and complex, preponderance of evidence is not a complicated concept.
To meet the preponderance standard, the claimants need to convince the person (or people) presiding over the case that there is at least a 50% chance their claims are true. In simpler terms, you simply have to prove that it’s more likely than not that the accused caused the damage.
What You Need to Prove in Personal Injury Cases
Since personal injury cases fall under civil case law, the burden of proof is a preponderance of evidence. However, in personal injury cases, you must prove four elements to make your case.
Duty of Care
Duty of care is the idea that somebody has a legal obligation to behave reasonably so that they don’t harm other people.
For example, every driver has a legal duty to stop at red lights and stop signs, and store owners have a duty to clean up spills and hazards to prevent shoppers from falling.
Sometimes, the law establishes a duty of care, like stopping at a red light. Other times, the duty of care is less clear, like store owners cleaning up spills.
For example, it’s generally accepted that the store owner has an obligation to maintain their property to keep shoppers safe, but things can get a little muddier with specific requirements. Florida recently passed a unique statute regarding negligence for businesses sued by people who slipped or fell on their premises. In order to meet the burden of proof in a slip and fall case, the plaintiff would have to prove that the shop owner had actual or constructive knowledge of the hazard.
Breach of Duty
Breach of duty refers to the accused failing to do something they were obligated to do, like stopping at a red light or cleaning up a spill. You need to prove that there’s more than a 50% chance that the accused failed to act reasonably, or that they were negligent.
It’s not enough to prove that the accused had a duty to act and failed to do so. You must also demonstrate that the accused’s failure to fulfill their obligation caused the injury or damage. Proving causation sounds simple; the accused ran a red light, slammed into your car, and you sustained injuries. However, it’s not always that cut and dry.
To win a personal injury case, the claimant must show by a preponderance of evidence that the accused’s negligence directly and proximately caused the accident. What if the accused ran the red light, but you failed to react because you were on your phone or arguing with a passenger?
Comparative fault or contributory negligence applies to personal injury cases and could shift the burden of proof back and forth between the parties. This principle means that courts can assign a percentage of the blame to both parties.
Finally, you need to prove that damage occurred. Typically, you must show evidence of bodily harm like a brain injury or a back injury, or damage to physical property. However, you can sue for different types of damages, including costs of medical treatment, pain and suffering, and punitive damages.
The Bottom Line on Burden of Proof
The burden of proof for most civil cases is a low bar, but navigating the complexities of personal injury cases is not easy, especially if you’re dealing with pain and recovering from an accident. While it’s important to gather as much information and support as you can find, you may want to enlist legal aid to help you navigate the finer points.