Proving Fault in a Personal Injury Lawsuit: Your Burden of Proof

Proving negligence and liability in court is the foundation of a successful personal injury lawsuit. Here’s what you’ll need to win your case.

If you’ve been injured because of someone else, you deserve fair compensation for your medical expenses, lost wages, and pain and suffering.

When the insurance company doesn’t offer you a fair settlement, a personal injury lawsuit may be necessary to make them pay.

Injury lawsuits must be filed against the party at fault for your injuries, not their insurance company.

Winning a lawsuit requires more than just telling your side of the story to the judge or jury (known as “the court”). In civil court cases, the law requires you to meet a burden of proof.

In other words, it’s up to you to show the court enough evidence to prove your side of the story is more believable than the other party’s. After thoroughly reviewing the evidence, the court will decide if the weight of your evidence was greater than the defendant’s.

Whether you were hurt in a car accident, slip and fall, dog attack or any other injury caused by someone else, you must have evidence to prove the other party was negligent, and their negligence caused your injuries.

What’s a Preponderance of Evidence?

When you have more or better evidence than the other guy in a civil lawsuit, in legal-speak that means you have “a preponderance of the evidence.”

A criminal lawsuit is filed by the federal, state or local government against a person accused of committing a crime. The government must prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the accused person is guilty. Criminal lawsuits have much higher evidence burdens than civil lawsuits.

A civil lawsuit might involve a party who broke the law, like a driver who ran a red light and caused a crash, but the purpose of the lawsuit is to seek compensation for your damages from the at-fault party.

To reach a preponderance of the evidence doesn’t mean you need to have loads more evidence, just more convincing evidence than your opponent. If the court decides there is a preponderance of the evidence in your favor, you’ve met your burden of proof and won the case.

It’s impossible to predict how much and what type of evidence will convince the court you’ve met your burden of proof. There’s no checklist or legal form used to decide the weight of your evidence compared to the defendant’s.

The weight of any piece of evidence is subjective, meaning the judge or jury will decide how important each piece of evidence is when they are making their decision about your case.

How much evidence is enough? Legal experts often use the following examples:

The scales of justice: At the beginning of a trial, both sides of the scale are equal. In the end, if the weight assigned by the court tips the scale slightly in your favor, you’ve met your burden of proof by a preponderance of the evidence.

A majority wins: A trial begins with both sides at 50 percent. At the end of the trial, if the court decides the weight of your evidence is 51 percent or more, and the defendant’s is 49 percent or less, you win. The preponderance of the evidence is in your favor.

Making a “Prima Facie” Injury Case

When you or your attorney file a personal injury lawsuit in court, the defendant will be at a slight advantage. That’s because legally the defendant doesn’t have to prove anything.

You filed the lawsuit, so the burden is on you to prove the other party is liable (responsible) for your injuries. The defendant participates by countering the evidence you offer and possibly by presenting some of their own.

You are only required to present what’s called a “prima facie” case. Prima facie is a Latin, legal term for “on its face” which means presenting enough evidence so that the court can see right away you have a good reason to blame the defendant for your injuries.

Whether the court will ultimately decide in your favor depends on the weight of your evidence.

If you’re representing yourself in a small claims lawsuit, you don’t have to disprove any evidence the defendant offers. You don’t have to ask questions of the defendant in court, to try and get them to admit fault.

If you believe your evidence is stronger than the defendant’s, don’t worry about countering their evidence with glib cross-examination techniques. Leave that to the attorneys.

Even though your injury lawsuit is against the at-fault party, their insurance company has a “duty to defend” their client and will send an attorney to fight you in court.

A prima facie injury case usually requires you to show that the at-fault party:

  1. Had a duty of care to prevent harm to others
  2. Did something wrong, or failed to do what any reasonable person would do
  3. Breached their duty of care
  4. Directly caused your injuries through their negligent act

You will also need evidence that you suffered real and measurable damages.

Damages in a personal injury lawsuit include:

Evidence in Personal Injury Lawsuits

It’s impossible for you to know how much evidence a judge or jury will need to rule in your favor. That’s why attorneys take nothing for granted.

Attorneys know if they don’t get in every piece of favorable evidence, there’s a chance the court will decide they haven’t met their burden of proof. Their approach is a full-on, more-is-better form of evidence production.

At the same time, attorneys make sure each piece of evidence serves some purpose. If not, even if it’s colorful or exciting, it’s just not worth entering. An attorney only wants to present evidence if it helps build your case.

Gathering Good Evidence

You can begin gathering important evidence as soon as you’re injured. Photographs and video taken at the scene can be compelling evidence of the other person’s negligence. As they say, pictures don’t lie.

Identifying who saw how you were injured is very important. Statements from independent witnesses can be critical to the success of your case.

Later on, you can order a copy of the police report and request copies of all your medical records and bills.

If you have fully recovered from minor injuries and just want to get your bills paid, you might decide to file your injury lawsuit in small claims court.

The evidence you gathered will probably be enough for a small claims case. Small claims courts are designed to help individuals resolve financial disputes without the help of an attorney.

Using Discovery to Prove Injuries and Liability

For lawsuits filed in higher courts, you’ll have to participate in the discovery process. The discovery phase of litigation is when opponents in a lawsuit get information from each other. If you don’t already have one, this would be a good time to retain a personal injury attorney.

Your attorney will be able to use interrogatories, requests for admission, and subpoenas to get specific information to be used as evidence for your case, including but not limited to:

  • Insurance policy limits
  • Proof of other sources of insurance money
  • Phone records from the at-fault party
  • Surveillance films from businesses
  • Asset checks
  • Driving and arrest records

Convincing the Jury

When an attorney knows they’ll be trying a case in front of a jury, they prepare the evidence so it’s easy to understand. They avoid quoting too many statistics or trying to explain complicated traffic patterns. Boring the jury is a good way to get them to stop paying attention.

Good attorneys find simple and direct ways to present evidence to a jury.

Attorneys want to get as much credible evidence as they can in front of the jury as quickly as possible. They often enlarge documents and photos and display them on an easel. As each piece of evidence is admitted, they grow closer and closer to meeting their legal burden of proof.

What it Takes to Prepare for Trial

There’s no mystery to meeting the burden of proof in your own small claims trial. You may not be able to enlarge your photographs and display them on an easel, but you can certainly present your evidence as clearly and effectively as an attorney would in higher court.

Make sure your evidence is in good order. Have plenty of extra copies to give to the judge or jury. If you have witnesses, make sure you’ve prepared them to testify. You and your witnesses must dress appropriately and be at the courthouse at least 30 minutes before the trial begins.

When your lawsuit is in a higher court, you’ll need the help of a personal injury attorney, also called a trial lawyer, to ensure the best outcome.

Injury attorneys spend many hours preparing for trial. They study the strengths and weaknesses of your case. Through discovery, they learn what kind of evidence the defense will offer.

Skilled attorneys prepare to eliminate or refute evidence that may interfere with your case and strengthen the favorable evidence that will build it.

Preparing each witness is a crucial task. Your attorney will review statements as many times as it takes to be sure you and your witnesses can testify truthfully and effectively.

Your trial lawyer knows how to present evidence and witness testimony in a clear and convincing way. They can prove to a jury exactly why your injury lawsuit is justified.

There’s too much at stake to face aggressive defense attorneys alone and unprepared.

Most personal injury attorneys don’t charge for your initial consultation. If you need a lawsuit to prove your injury claim, find out what a good attorney can do for you.

Charles R. Gueli, Esq. is a personal injury attorney with over 20 years of legal experience. He’s admitted to the NY State Bar, and been named a Super Lawyer for the NY Metro area, an exclusive honor awarded to the top five percent of attorneys. Charles has worked extensively in the areas of auto accidents,... Read More >>