Winning a lawsuit requires more than just reciting the facts of a case to the judge or jury (known as “the court”). In civil court cases, the law also requires you to meet a burden of proof. After thoroughly reviewing the evidence, the court will decide if the weight of your evidence was greater than the defendant’s.
The legal way of saying the weight of the evidence is greater is to say “a preponderance of the evidence.” This means your case must be only slightly more convincing than the defendant’s. 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.
Before presenting your case, you must carefully set out your evidence and make sure it’s enough to convince the court your case is more substantial than the defendant’s. You also must be able to move smoothly from one piece of evidence to the next while building your case.
Preponderance of the Evidence
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 vs. the defendant’s. The weight of any piece of evidence is subjective, determined by the judge or jury in deliberations.
Whether or not you meet your burden of proof is up to the opinion of the court. When trying to explain the weight of evidence as it relates to burden of proof, judges and attorneys often use the following examples:
- The scales of justice – At the beginning of a trial, both sides of the scale are equal. At 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” Case
When you begin a civil court case, the defendant will be at a slight advantage. That’s because legally he doesn’t have to say or do anything. He has nothing to prove. You filed the lawsuit, so the burden is on you to prove your case. The defendant participates by countering the evidence you offer and possibly by presenting some of his own.
To meet your burden of proof, you don’t have to disprove any evidence the defendant offers. Cross-examining the defendant is not a legal requirement. If you believe your evidence is stronger than the defendant’s, don’t worry about countering it with glib cross-examination techniques. Leave that to the attorneys.
You are only required to present what’s called a “prima facie” case. Prima facie means you have to present enough evidence so at first appearance the court can see you have a valid case. Whether the court will ultimately decide in your favor or not depends on the weight of your evidence vs. that of the defendant.
Beyond a Reasonable Doubt
There’s another burden of proof that’s different than preponderance of the evidence. It’s the one required in criminal cases, known as proof “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This is the burden that prosecutors in criminal cases must meet to get a conviction. In the United States, the defendant in a criminal trial is presumed innocent until proven guilty.
Unlike civil court cases, criminal cases don’t begin with both sides equal. When a criminal trial begins, the scales of justice are already 100 percent in favor the defendant. By the end of trial, if the prosecution hasn’t tipped the scales to 99 percent in their favor, they haven’t met their burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
That’s a substantial percentage swing for the prosecution to accomplish, but it’s been an integral part of the criminal justice system since the U.S. Constitution was drafted.
Example: Weighing Evidence in a Criminal Trial
Imagine there are two criminal trials. In both trials the evidence is identical, but one jury found the defendant guilty and the other, not guilty. How could this happen? It happened because each jury weighed the evidence differently.
The first jury assessed a weight of 25 percent for fingerprint identification, while the second assessed it at 15 percent. (While juries are not outwardly permitted to use percentages to determine guilt or innocence, this is a good way to describe the process.) As the deliberations went on, each jury assessed different weights to the same evidence.
By the end, one jury decided there was enough evidence to equal 99 percent, and therefore the prosecution met its burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. The other jury decided there was only enough for 75 percent. The first jury found the defendant guilty, and the second jury acquitted him.
The concept of burden of proof is fluid. Its use in criminal and civil court cases has been debated by legal scholars for over a century. If you’re still not sure exactly what each burden of proof means, don’t worry, you’re in the same club as most judges and attorneys across the country.
Small Claims Court
Some states allow the plaintiff and the defendant to choose between having a judge or jury hear their small claims lawsuit. Other states permit only judges to hear small claims cases. If your case is being heard by a jury, the judge will explain the burden of proof.
The judge will tell the jury they will be the sole arbiters of the weight of the evidence, and they alone should decide what weight to give that evidence.
In all civil court cases, the judge informs the jurors it’s up to them to place the evidence on their theoretical scale, and if the weight they assign to the plaintiff’s evidence tips the scale by 51 percent or more, they must find for the plaintiff. If a judge will be deciding your case, she already knows the burden of proof.
Either way, you won’t have to worry about discussing the legal premise of burden of proof and preponderance of the evidence with the judge or jury. Just present your evidence as effectively as possible. The rest is up to the court.
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