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

After being injured in an accident, you might be thinking about what evidence is required to negotiate a fair settlement or obtain an adequate jury award for your case. Showing evidence and proving your point seem like inherent aspects of the legal process, but certain conditions must be met when doing so. The burden of proof is a fundamental condition of personal injury cases, so here’s what you need to know about what it is, who has it, and what’s necessary to satisfy it.

In addition to this guide, you should reach out to an experienced personal injury lawyer. The personal injury lawyers at Sweeney Merrigan are adept at helping clients navigate the standards and demands of a personal injury claim. Schedule a free consultation to discuss your case by sending in a request form or calling our office at (617) 391-9001.

How the Burden of Proof Applies to the Plaintiff

From the outside, it may seem evident that the defendant should be held liable for the plaintiff’s injuries. However, appearances aren’t enough to secure fair compensation. To win their suit, plaintiffs in personal injury cases are burdened with proving that the defendant’s negligence more likely than not led to their injuries and potentially other damages.

Negligence is integral in personal injury cases, and the plaintiff must make a compelling case by demonstrating that their claim contains all four elements of negligence. As a result, the plaintiff must work hard to prepare their case. Proving negligence can take a long time and may require compelling evidence, careful examination of the case’s details, carefully crafted arguments, and expert testimony.

Many people do not have the knowledge or resources to do this successfully on their own, so it is advantageous to rely on the skills of an experienced personal injury lawyer to manage these responsibilities. Hiring an experienced personal injury lawyer may give you access to helpful information and experts who can benefit your case.

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 a party must meet to win their case.

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 decides to believe the defendant based on its observations of the witnesses’ believability. 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, an officer must have reasonable suspicion to stop a car. Reasonable suspicion 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 also applies to punitive damages in personal injury cases. Punitive damages are 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 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.

How the Burden of Proof Applies to the Defendant

Unlike the plaintiff, the defendant is not burdened with having to prove their side of the story. The defendant does not have to persuade the jury of a different version of events and establish that their version is correct. Instead, the jury must believe that at least half of the plaintiff’s version is erroneous or untrue for the plaintiff’s case to fail.

Even though the defendant doesn’t bear the burden of proof, they may still provide evidence that contradicts the plaintiff’s account of events. On the other hand, the jury is not obligated to assume the defendant’s account is the truest. Instead, the defendant will mainly use this information to create enough doubt on the plaintiff’s side to persuade the jury that their side is not more likely than not true.

Affirmative Defense

Defendants do not bear the burden of proof unless they attempt to use an affirmative defense. An affirmative defense is when the defendant attempts to use additional facts to invalidate the plaintiff’s claim. Defendants invoking this defense must prove that the elements of affirmative defense relevant to the case are more than likely true.

The following are a few of the most common affirmative defenses in personal injury cases:

  • Comparative negligence: The defendant was not the only one to blame for the accident, and they must establish that a third party’s negligence (or the plaintiff themself) played a role in causing the plaintiff’s injuries.
  • Primary assumption of risk: When a plaintiff is hurt while participating in a dangerous activity, the defendant must prove that the plaintiff voluntarily and intentionally assumed the risks associated with the activity at the time of the injury.
  • Expired statute of limitations: The plaintiff’s case was not submitted within the designated period after the event occurred.

Even if the plaintiff persuades the jury of all four elements of their case, the defendant may still utilize an affirmative defense to invalidate the plaintiff’s claim. The defendant can persuade the jury that the plaintiff more likely than not contributed to their injuries, knowingly agreed to participate in a dangerous activity, or filed their claim too late. If the defendant can prove these or another type of affirmative defense, they will likely win the case.

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. Sweeney Merrigan’s personal injury lawyers are skilled at guiding clients through the standards and expectations of a personal injury claim. You should contact an experienced Massachusetts personal injury lawyer from our firm to help you build a strong case.

Our attorneys know the ins and outs of the kinds of evidence needed in court to meet these burdens of proof. You can expect reliable legal advice from experienced members of our firm like Attorney Erin E. McHugh, a Boston personal injury lawyer who has secured millions of dollars in compensation for her clients. Call us at (617) 391-9001 and schedule your consultation today.