The Burden of Proof: What is it and How Does It Apply to My Personal Injury Case?

If you were injured in an accident, it’s natural to wonder what evidence may be necessary to secure a reasonable jury award or negotiate a fair settlement. 

The Four Elements of a Personal Injury Case

In a California personal injury case, the burden of proof must be satisfied for these four elements:

  • The defendant owed the plaintiff a duty to act with reasonable care; 
  • The defendant breached their duty to act with reasonable care;
  • The breach caused the plaintiff’s injuries; and
  • The plaintiff was harmed.

The burden of proof is the standard of evidence a party needs to legally establish a fact.

Preponderance of the Evidence Standard

This is the burden of proof for the four elements of a personal injury claim. It is the most common standard in the law. A preponderance of the evidence means that, more likely than not, your version of events is true as opposed to the defendant’s. 

The plaintiff presents physical evidence, witness testimony, and expert testimony to meet this burden of proof and prove their case. On the other hand, there’s no requirement for the defendant to present any evidence to defend the case. The defendant prevails if the plaintiff fails to meet the preponderance of the evidence standard of proof.

Preponderance of the evidence does not necessarily mean providing more evidence than the other party. It is “not necessarily [met] in the number of witnesses or quantity.” Rather, the jury will assess the quality of a party’s witnesses and other evidence to determine which party wins a case.

For instance, if you were struck by a vehicle while using a crosswalk, a critical fact may be whether the crosswalk had signaled for pedestrians to “proceed” or “stop.” Say you and three witnesses testify the crosswalk signaled “proceed.” However, the defendant testifies that it signaled “stop.” 

That you have a greater number of witnesses doesn’t necessarily meet the burden of proof. Witness credibility is important. Based on observing all the witnesses’ demeanor during testimony, the jury may believe the defendant. This is an acceptable outcome at the jury’s discretion.

Other Burdens of Proof

The preponderance of the evidence is the most prevalent standard, but two others are commonly used in California law.

Clear and Convincing Evidence

This is a higher standard of proof than preponderance of the evidence.

This standard: 

This standard is required in personal injury cases when the plaintiff is seeking punitive damages. The plaintiff must prove by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant acted maliciously, oppressively, or with fraud.

It’s also used in many other legal matters. One example is in family law when determining whether to terminate parental rights. It’s also common in conservatorship law. For instance, it’s used when deciding whether a person under conservatorship is gravely disabled.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt in Criminal Cases

If you read legal procedurals, watch TV court dramas, or see legal thrillers at the movie theater, you’re probably familiar with this standard. It’s used in criminal cases when determining the defendant’s guilt.

For a guilty verdict, it is necessary to prove the defendant is guilty beyond all reasonable doubt. The prosecution must persuade the jury that there is virtually no other explanation from the evidence presented at trial. 

Incidentally, there is a rationale for using a lower burden of proof in personal injury cases instead of the beyond a reasonable doubt standard. The civil defendant does not end up with a long-term prison sentence, and the defendant’s conduct is considered less blameworthy.

Shifting the Burden of Proof to the Defendant

Occasionally, the burden of proof in a civil case may shift to the defendant. If the plaintiff’s evidence has sufficiently established their cause of action, then the defendant may have an affirmative defense. This can occur in private defamation cases concerning personal matters. 

For example, assume that physician Mark sues Manuel for libel after Manual tweeted that Mark is an incompetent doctor. Manuel’s affirmative defense would be that his tweet was true. So, once Mark has presented evidence proving the elements of defamation, the burden of proof shifts to Manuel to prove that what he tweeted was true.

Why You Need an Attorney for Your Personal Injury Case in California

The preponderance of the evidence and clear and convincing burdens of proof are lower standards than beyond a reasonable doubt. Even so, you need an attorney to help you understand if your claim will satisfy these standards of proof. Our attorneys at Mission Personal Injury Lawyers, P.C., have the knowledge and experience to prove your case in court. Contact our law offices in San Diego, CA, or call us at (619) 777-5555 for a free consultation.