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The Burden of Proof in a Lawsuit: Personal Injury vs. Criminal

In both civil and criminal law, the concept of “burden of proof” describes the prosecution’s or plaintiff’s requirement of providing evidence sufficient for proving the defendant’s guilt. The United States Constitution and state laws require an accuser prove guilt against the accused. Those accused of a crime do not have to prove their innocence.

Although both personal injury cases and criminal cases involve the burden of proof, they function a bit differently in either type of case.

The Burden of Proof in Personal Injury Cases

Personal injury claims hinge on the plaintiff’s ability to prove the defendant was negligent in some way. To do this, the plaintiff must establish three facts:

  • The defendant owed the plaintiff a duty to act with reasonable care. For example, all drivers have a duty to pay attention while on the road. Failing that duty is an act of negligence.
  • The defendant violated or breached this duty by some action, or in some cases, inaction. Following the previous example, texting while driving would constitute a breach of duty to act with reasonable care.
  • The breach directly caused the plaintiff harm, or he or she suffered measurable losses in some way due to this breach. If the plaintiff was hurt and incurred property damage due to the defendant’s negligence behind the wheel, this would count as loss and harm.

When individuals file a personal injury claim, they must prove to the court that the defendant is liable for the incident in question. The burden of proof in civil cases is far less demanding than criminal ones. The plaintiff must simply prove the defendant is “more likely than not” liable for the damages in question.

The law doesn’t require defendants in a personal injury case to establish their own innocence. Of course, they almost always offer arguments, evidence, and testimony in an effort to debunk the plaintiff’s claims.  In some situations, a defendant may attempt to prove an “affirmative defense,” which describes situations in which a defendant’s claims effectively negate the plaintiff’s argument.

The defendant has to prove the affirmative defense is “more likely than not” true. Following the car accident example above, the defendant might argue that although he or she did indeed strike the plaintiff’s vehicle, the plaintiff had run through a red light, and, thus, caused the accident.

The Burden of Proof in Criminal Cases

Criminal cases have a more stringent burden of proof. The prosecution must prove the defendant’s guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” The prosecution does not have to prove guilt with absolute certainty, but it must provide evidence to counteract any reasonable doubts a jury may have as to the defendant’s guilt.

Similar to personal injury cases, a defense attorney may attempt to claim an affirmative defense or make an argument that attempts to derail the prosecution’s case. Examples of this include:

  • Self-defense. The defendant knowingly committed the acts in question but did so strictly out of the need for self-preservation.
  • Duress. The defendant knowingly engaged in the illegal acts in question but only did so after receiving threats or being otherwise coerced by another party.
  • Insanity. The defendant could not have knowingly committed the crime in question because he or she is provably, demonstrably insane.
  • Entrapment. The defendant may argue that a law enforcement entity influenced him or her to commit a crime he or she normally would not have been likely to commit.

For these affirmative defenses to work, the defense must provide clear and convincing evidence. What that means exactly depends on the details of the case, and so the burden of proof varies quite widely depending on the nature of the case. If you have further questions about how the burden of proof functions differently in each type of case, contact us today for more information.

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