Burden of Proof
“Burden of proof” refers to the weight of evidence that the plaintiff (the complaining party) must produce to win the case. In a personal injury case, the standard is normally a “preponderance of the evidence.” In some cases, the “clear and convincing evidence” standard applies.
The familiar “guilt beyond a reasonable doubt” applies only to criminal prosecutions.
Remember that the defendant generally has no burden of proof of their own-–they must only prevent the plaintiff from meeting their burden of proof.
A Preponderance of the Evidence
The “preponderance of the evidence” standard is a “more likely than not” standard. To illustrate, imagine the plaintiff and the defendant piling evidence onto their respective sides of a giant “scale of justice.” The plaintiff wins if (and only if) their evidence outweighs the evidence presented by the defendant in terms of relevance, persuasiveness, and credibility.
The margin by which the plaintiff’s evidence outweighs the defendant’s evidence doesn’t matter. The plaintiff wins even if their evidence only outweighs the defendant’s evidence by the weight of a peppercorn. If you want to reduce it to a percentage, you could call it the “51% standard.” If the plaintiff’s evidence is lighter or equal to the defendant’s evidence, the defendant wins. Note that the defendant’s own testimony, even a bald denial, is a form of evidence.
Example: The Elements of a Negligence Claim
Most personal injury claims are negligence claims–they are claims that the defendant caused an injury through careless behavior. A negligence claim includes the four elements that appear below. To win, the plaintiff must prove each one of these four elements by a preponderance of the evidence:
- The defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care. This is a legal question that the plaintiff need not prove. Nevertheless, the plaintiff might need to prove certain surrounding facts. For example, a professional standard of care might apply to a doctor who treated a car accident victim. However, if the doctor rendered first aid as an off-duty bystander, the court might apply an ordinary standard of care.
- The defendant breached their duty of care. This is a factual question to which the burden of proof directly applies. Maybe the plaintiff is asserting that the defendant caused a slip and fall accident by failing to shovel snow from the parking lot of their grocery store, for example. This element might boil down to the factual question of how often the defendant shoveled snow from the parking lot.
- The plaintiff suffered a physical injury. The plaintiff can answer this purely factual question through medical records, photographs, eyewitnesses, etc.
- The defendant’s breach of duty was the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s physical injury and related losses. This element is primarily factual in the sense that the plaintiff can try to prove that the injury would not have occurred except for the defendant’s breach of duty. An example of this sort of evidence would include proof of a commercial truck’s velocity at the time of a truck accident and a chart showing the minimum stopping distance.
Failure to prove any one of these elements will result in the dismissal of your claim with no compensation. Other types of personal injury claims, such as intentional torts and product liability claims, use different legal elements.
A defendant may assert an “affirmative defense” such as:
- Superseding cause;
- Assumption of the risk; or
- Comparative fault by a third party.
Note that affirmative defense does not mean simply refuting the plaintiff’s claim. It means asserting a new claim to counter the plaintiff’s claim. When the defendant raises an affirmative defense, they must meet the “preponderance of the evidence” standard.
Clear and Convincing Evidence
“Clear and convincing evidence” is an elevated standard of proof that Georgia courts use when determining the validity of a punitive damages claim. To meet this standard, the plaintiff must prove that it is highly probable that their version of events is true. This standard is harder to meet than the preponderance of the evidence standard but easier to meet than the beyond a reasonable doubt standard.
Proving Punitive Damages
The purpose of punitive damages is not to compensate you but to punish the defendant for particularly outrageous behavior. Nevertheless, it is you who the defendant must pay, not the court. Courts only occasionally award punitive damages.
You cannot claim punitive damages unless you also claim compensatory (ordinary) damages. The court will evaluate your compensatory damages claim based on the preponderance of the evidence standard, but it will evaluate your punitive damages claim based on the clear and convincing evidence standard.
You must prove by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant committed willful misconduct, malice, fraud, wantonness, or oppression or acted with such a complete lack of care that it is fair to infer a conscious indifference to the consequences of their behavior.
A Tifton Personal Injury Attorney Can Help
An experienced Tifton personal injury lawyer will know which burden of proof applies to your claim. They will also know how to meet that burden for each element of your claim. You don’t need to worry that you can’t afford to hire a lawyer. Most personal injury lawyers at The King Firm charge based on a percentage of your compensation.