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

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

If you’ve been in an accident and suffered an injury in Massachusetts, you might be thinking about what evidence is required to negotiate a fair settlement or obtain an adequate jury award for your case. 

Here’s what you need to know about the burden of proof in personal injury cases – what it is, who has it, and what’s necessary to satisfy it.

Elements of a Personal Injury Case

In a Massachusetts’ personal injury case, you must meet the burden of proof when establishing the following elements:

  • The defendant owed you a duty to exercise reasonable care; 
  • The defendant breached this duty;
  • The defendant caused your injuries; and
  • You suffered damages 

The burden of proof refers to the level of proof that a party must meet to win their case.

Preponderance of the Evidence

Preponderance of the Evidence

“Preponderance of the evidence”  is the term used to describe 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 your argument or case is more likely than not — as opposed to the defendant’s. 

To meet this burden of proof, the plaintiff presents physical evidence, witness testimony, and expert testimony to prove their case. But the defendant is not required to do anything to prove or defend their case. If the plaintiff fails to meet the preponderance of the evidence standard of proof, the defendant prevails.

The preponderance of the evidence standard is not a numbers game. For example, if you’ve been in an accident, the critical question may be whether the light was green or red when the defendant drove into the intersection. If you and two witnesses testify that the light was red, but the defendant testifies the light was green, you have not necessarily met your burden of proof. The credibility of the witnesses is also a factor. Perhaps the jury, based on its observations of the witnesses’ believability, decides to believe the defendant. This is appropriate, even if three witnesses testified the light was red and only one testified it was green.

Other Burdens of Proof

While the preponderance of the evidence is the most prevalent standard, there are five other common standards of proof in Massachusetts. Here they are, ranked from the lowest standard to the highest:

Reasonable Suspicion

This standard applies in many law enforcement instances. For example, to stop a car, an officer must have reasonable suspicion. This is defined as “suspicion … grounded in specific, articulable fact and reasonable inferences [drawn] therefrom.”

Probable Cause

This is the standard usually applied in the Fourth Amendment’s search and seizure provision. According to the United States Supreme Court, probable cause exists where the evidence supports a reasonable inference that “there is a fair probability that contraband or evidence of a crime will be found in a particular place.”  

Probable cause is also the standard when deciding whether the prosecution has produced sufficient evidence to convince a jury that the accused committed the charged crime. If probable cause exists, then the accused can be put on trial.

Preponderance of the Evidence

This standard is the middle of the road.

Clear and Convincing Evidence

This is a higher standard of proof, which:

  • “Involves a degree of belief greater than the usually imposed burden of proof by a fair preponderance of the evidence, but less than the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt imposed in criminal cases.”
  • Must be “full, clear, and decisive.”

Many matters require the clear and convincing evidence standard. One example is in family law, when establishing whether a parent is unfit to have custody of a child. The standard also applies to a judge determining whether an individual suffers from substance abuse or alcohol use disorder. Proof of libel is a further example.

The clear and convincing standard is also applicable to punitive damages in personal injury cases. Punitive damages meant to punish the defendant for their conduct rather than compensate the plaintiff for their injuries. The clear and convincing evidence standard is used to determine whether punitive damages should be awarded.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

You’re probably familiar with this standard from reading novels or watching TV. This is the standard that is applied in criminal cases to determine the defendant’s guilt. 

The prosecution has the burden to prove that the defendant is guilty beyond all reasonable doubt. In other words, it must convince the jury that there is no other rational explanation from the evidence presented at trial. The jury has to be virtually certain that the defendant committed the crime in order to render a guilty verdict.

The standard is also used when determining whether a person should be committed to a psychiatric facility if they suffer from a mental illness.

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

The preponderance of the evidence is lower than other standards of proof in Massachusetts. However, understanding whether your personal injury case meets this standard is complex. You should contact an experienced Massachusetts personal injury lawyer. Our attorneys know the ins-and-outs of the kinds of evidence needed in court to meet these burdens of proof.

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