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What is the Burden of Proof in a Personal Injury Case?

Nov 9, 2021 | Personal Injury

When people hear the phrase “burden of proof,” they often think of the legal standard in criminal cases — “beyond a reasonable doubt.” However, it’s crucial to understand that the burden of proof in a personal injury case differs from that in a criminal trial. In a lawsuit for injuries caused by a car crash, slip and fall, bicycle accident, pedestrian knockdown, or any other accident, the plaintiff must establish their case by a “preponderance of the evidence.”

What is a Preponderance of the Evidence?

A personal injury lawsuit is a civil action brought by an individual (referred to as the “plaintiff”) who alleges that they have been injured due to the negligence of another. The plaintiff has the burden to demonstrate that it is more likely than not that the defendant is at fault for their damages.

Unlike the very high burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt in a criminal case, the “preponderance of the evidence” standard is a much lower burden of proof. Effectively, it means that the plaintiff has set forth enough credible evidence to show that the defendant’s actions are more likely than not to blame for the accident.

How is a Personal Injury Case Proven?

There are four elements that must be proven in a personal injury case in order for a plaintiff to establish that the defendant should be held responsible for their damages. Significantly, a plaintiff must show the following:

  • Duty of care — The defendant must have owed the plaintiff a duty of care at the time the accident occurred. For example, a driver owes a duty to others on the road, and a property owner has a duty to maintain their land in a reasonably safe condition for those who enter.
  • Breach of duty — The plaintiff must establish that the defendant was negligent did not act reasonably) in carrying out their duty of care to them.
  • Causation — The defendant’s negligence, carelessness, or recklessness must have been a substantial cause of the accident that harmed the plaintiff although it need not be the only cause.
  • Damages — The plaintiff must have suffered quantifiable damages such as property damage, physical injuries or out of pocket expenses like medical bills and lost income in order to bring a claim.  

A good personal injury attorney will be able to assess a plaintiff’s case to determine whether it satisfies the legal criteria necessary to assert a personal injury claim. Importantly, each element must be established in order for a plaintiff to prevail in their personal injury claim. If just one element is not satisfied, a plaintiff will not be able to prove their case even by the lower preponderence of the evidence standard.

The Defendant’s Affirmative Defense Shifts the Burden of Proof

Critically, the defendant does not need to present any evidence in their defense (although that is unlikely to happen in reality). In the event that the plaintiff cannot prove the above four elements by a preponderance of the evidence, the defendant cannot be held liable.

However, if the defendant raises an affirmative defense in a personal injury action in an attempt to avoid or reduce liability, the burden of proof shifts to them — and they must offer proof to establish their affirmative defense. Comparative negligence on the part of the plaintiff (meaning the plaintiff is at fault too and shouldn’t recover for damages that they caused themselves) is an affirmative defense that is often asserted in a personal injury action.

Contact an Experienced New York Personal Injury Attorney

If you have suffered injuries due to the negligence of another, it is essential to have a personal injury attorney by your side to help ensure you obtain the maximum compensation you deserve. Due to our commitment to every case and extensive experience in the courtroom, we regularly secure verdicts and settlements in the millions for our clients.

The Edelsteins, Faegenburg & Brown LLP is a personal injury law firm dedicated to fighting for the rights of accident victims to ensure they get the monetary recovery they deserve for their injuries. Located in Manhattan, our firm has been handling personal injury cases throughout New York City since 1937. Call to schedule a free consultation at (212) 425-1999 today.

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