Burden of Proof in Personal Injury Lawsuits

The burden of proof is a legal concept describing who has the obligation to prove their case and to what extent they need to prove their case to prevail. In personal injury cases, the injured party typically has to prove their case and meet their burden of proof in order to recover. The Plaintiff must prove through evidence that the Defendant was negligent and caused her injuries. Satisfaction of this burden is essential. Without sufficient evidence, the case can be dismissed or a jury may find against the Plaintiff and the Plaintiff will not receive compensation from the Defendant for the damages sustained. So what is considered sufficient evidence for the Plaintiff to have proven the case? That’s where the burden of proof comes in.

The Burden of Proof in Personal Injury Civil Lawsuits

The legal framework for a Plaintiff’s recovery begins with the filing of a personal injury case in the appropriate court of law. The victim and injured party is called the Plaintiff. The Plaintiff has the burden of proof to satisfy all elements of the negligence case. For Ohio cases (and most jurisdictions), the elements of negligence are: duty, breach, caution, and damages. The Defendant, who is alleged to have caused the accident or injury, does not need to prove that the evidence is true. The Defendant only needs to attack the Plaintiff’s evidence, questioning whether the Plaintiff met the burden of proof or not. The Defendant, can however, also submit affirmative defenses precluding the Plaintiff from recovery.

Burden of Proof in Civil Cases vs. Criminal Cases

In civil cases, the burden of proof is by a preponderance of the evidence while in a criminal case, the burden is beyond a reasonable doubt. This means that in a civil case such as a personal injury lawsuit, the Plaintiff must present evidence that proves her case is more likely than not to be true. In a criminal case, however, the prosecutor must prove that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt which means the fact finder absolutely  has no doubt about the guilt of the defendant. These different burdens of proof can result in very different legal outcomes. 

Preponderance of the Evidence Standard

Preponderance of the evidence is the burden of proof  used in civil cases. The plaintiff who has this burden, must prove her case by providing evidence that shows that her version of what happened is more likely than not true. In comparison, clear and convincing evidence requires that the party must prove their case to a high degree of certainty while beyond a reasonable doubt used in criminal cases requires the prosecutor to provide sufficient evidence to show the fact finder that there is no reasonable doubt in their mind concerning the guilt of the defendant.

The burden of proof in a personal injury case requires the plaintiff to show sufficient evidence to satisfy all four elements of; the duty of care, breach of that duty, proximate cause, and damages. As to the duty of care, she must show the reasonable care that the defendant owed to her to avoid causing her harm. The breach of that duty occurs when the defendant fails to act as a reasonable person would do. Causation are all those injuries that were caused by the breach while damages are those compensatory and non- compensatory monetary  awards that make the plaintiff whole again. 

Defenses and Burden Shifting

When a Plaintiff files a complaint with the court, the Defendant rebuts the allegations in the complaint with an answer. In essence, the Defendant will usually deny the allegations and present additional evidence that results in a defense to the Plaintiff’s claims. Affirmative defenses such as contributory negligence and assumption of the risk can be pled to defeat the Plaintiff’s claims.

For example, contributory negligence occurs when there is negligent conduct between both parties. Negligence on the part of the Plaintiff in causing their own accident is called contributory negligence. In such cases, the Plaintiff contributes to her own injuries by her own negligence. In the past contributory negligence, no matter how little, was a complete bar to recovery for the Plaintiff. Presently, most states use a comparative analysis and as long as the Plaintiff is not more than fifty percent negligent, they may still recover. With contributory negligence, however, the recovery may be reduced percentage of the Plaintiff’s own negligence. This depends on State law. 

Assumption of the risk is another commonly asserted defense. This may occur in cases where the Plaintiff has exposed themselves to a dangerous condition where the injury could be expected. If proven, the Plaintiff will often be unable to recover for her injuries because they are found to have knowingly and willingly exposed themselves to that risk. This defense can either be express or implied. Express assumption occurs when a Plaintiff signs an express waiver preventing them from recovery. Such a waiver cannot be against public policy. An implied risk precludes recovery when the Plaintiff has an appreciation and knowledge of the risk yet continues to proceed. 

About the Authors: Sawan & Sawan is a multi-generational, family owned law firm practicing law in the areas of car accidents, truck accidents, and other personal injury. Our firm practices law in Ohio and Michigan.

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Dennis P. Sawan

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Christopher A. Sawan


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