Burden of proof is a term that many people have heard on television or in the movies. You may have heard a lawyer or judge talk about the "burden of proof" or use the phrase “beyond a reasonable doubt” and assume that it is the standard that applies to all cases. That is simply not true. Beyond a reasonable doubt is one of the highest burdens of proof and only applies to certain criminal cases. There are different standards for civil cases.
What is the burden of proof?
Burden of proof is basically what it sounds like, one party has the burden of proving the allegations made in their case. The burden of proof differs depending on the nature of the case and the type of case being brought, whether it is a civil case or a criminal case. The person bringing the claim (plaintiff), or making the allegations, generally has the burden of proving his/her case to a judge or jury. The person defending against the claim (defendant) often attacks the evidence presented by the plaintiff to show that he/she is not liable for damages because the plaintiff did not meet the burden of proof.
The burden of proof in a civil case is the one people are most likely less familiar with. In a civil case, the plaintiff has the burden of proof. It is up to the plaintiff to prove his/her case by filing a complaint setting forth the claims and then providing evidence to support those claims. Evidence can include physical evidence (documents, medical studies, exhibits, etc.) as well as expert and witness testimony.
In the majority of civil cases, in order to prove his/her case, the plaintiff will have to present evidence which meets one of two standards: preponderance of the evidence or clear or convincing evidence. Which standard applies depends on the nature of the case.
Preponderance of the Evidence
To meet a preponderance of the evidence standard, the plaintiff will have to show it is more likely than not that the defendant caused the event which led to the plaintiff’s injury. Preponderance of the evidence requires showing that there is at least a 51% chance that the defendant caused the event leading to injury. Let’s take for example a medical malpractice case where a plaintiff was paralyzed after undergoing routine knee surgery. The plaintiff would argue that the doctor’s negligence during the knee surgery caused the paralysis. In order to meet his/her preponderance of the evidence standard, the plaintiff would only need to show that doctor’s actions were more likely than not to have caused the plaintiff’s paralysis. The plaintiff would not have to show that the doctor’s negligence definitely caused the paralysis. If a judge or jury determines that the evidence shows that there is at least a 51% chance that the doctor’s actions led to the plaintiff’s injury, then the plaintiff has met the burden of proof.
Preponderance of the evidence is the standard that is applied to civil cases including:
- car accident claims
- medical malpractice claims
- wrongful death claims
Expert and/or witness testimony can go a long way in helping a plaintiff to meet his/her burden of proof. Using the above medical malpractice example, a plaintiff would be well served to have another doctor testify, as an expert, on the plaintiff’s behalf that it is the expert doctor’s medical opinion that the defendant doctor’s actions during knee surgery, or negligence, more likely than not caused the plaintiff’s paralysis. The expert testimony could help to convince a judge or jury that the defendant doctor’s actions more likely than not caused the plaintiff’s injuries and therefore satisfy the plaintiff’s burden of proof. The expert doctor does not have to testify that the plaintiff's injuries were definitely caused by the defendant doctor’s actions to meet the burden of proof.
Of the two civil burdens of proof, this is the more common burden of proof and the easier one to meet.
Clear and Convincing Evidence
The clear and convincing evidence standard is a higher burden of proof and requires that a plaintiff provide evidence to show that a fact is substantially more likely than not to be true. This requires a more than the 51% chance that is required to meet a preponderance of evidence standard. The judge or jury must be convinced that the defendant is at fault. Cases that require clear and convincing evidence include:
- challenging a will
- mental health proceedings
- parental right termination proceedings
- child custody cases
The burden of proof in a criminal case is “beyond a reasonable doubt.” In a criminal case, where a law has been broken, the case is brought on behalf of the government, federal and/or state. Individuals cannot bring criminal claims. The title of the person representing the government varies. For example, in Charlotte, North Carolina, it is usually a Prosecutor or District Attorney bringing the claim. In other areas it may be a Solicitor. This article will refer to the government as the prosecutor.
The prosecutor (plaintiff) in a criminal case must prove that there can be no other explanation for the crime except that the defendant committed it. Let’s use as an example the case of a car accident where the driver was driving in the wrong direction on a major roadway and caused numerous deaths. The prosecutor may decide to bring a criminal claim against the driver. Things the prosecutor would need to prove beyond a reasonable doubt include: that the driver was in fact driving the car that led to the car accidents, that it is illegal to drive the wrong way on a highway, and that the driver was actually driving the wrong way. The prosecutor needs to show the driver is at fault, that there is no other explanation.
In criminal cases, unlike civil, defendants are “presumed innocent until proven guilty.” Prosecutors must overcome this presumption in order to meet their burden of proof.
Meeting the burden of proof is one of the most important steps in any case. If a plaintiff is not able to meet his/her burden of proof then a judge or jury will not award the plaintiff any damages.
Choosing the Right Charlotte, North Carolina Attorney
The Charlotte, NC based lawyers at Rosensteel Fleishman, PLLC are experienced civil attorneys who can help you determine if you have a case and discuss with you what burden of proof applies to your unique situation. Please contact our office at 704-714-1450. There is no fee for an initial consultation