What Is Burden of Proof? And Why Is It Important?

Burden of Proof

Do you have an upcoming court date? You’re likely preparing everything from professional attire to entrusting your case to the right lawyers. Still, whether you’re bringing the case to the judge or defending yourself against a plaintiff or prosecutor, you should be ready to present your story with evidence or “burden of proof.”

What is the burden of proof? At its core, burden of proof constitutes anything that gives your version of the story legitimacy. So, if a judge assigns you this burden of proof, the success or failure of your presentation will dictate what the judge or jury decides regarding your case.

How might these standards of proof affect your trial’s outcome? To answer that, let’s look at how this evidence-based approach plays out in different court cases or scenarios.

Burden of Proof in Civil Cases

When the law requires a certain amount of evidence, is it just enough to meet a lenient standard or as much as possible to eradicate even the slightest doubt? That depends on the type of trial. In all cases, you must supply tangible evidence to support your claim.

Usually, civil lawsuits arise when civilians or organizations lodge disputes, such as a divorced couple fighting for child custody. The one filing the claim makes some allegation and this plaintiff takes on the burden of proving a legitimate case against the respondent. The burden of proof in civil cases may include:

  • Documents
  • Items
  • Individuals for witness statements

Let’s take the example of a construction worker who has a slip-and-fall accident at work. It takes place because of old, shoddy equipment that the owner needed to replace. This worker files a case against this owner for medical bills, lost wages, and so on. 

As the plaintiff, the injured worker must then prove the owner’s negligence. Perhaps they’ll bring eyewitness accounts of the accident to court or the dangerous ladder itself. However, to successfully prove damages or some harm that originated because of the defendant being at fault, the worker must present a preponderance of evidence, which means a believable story rather than one beyond a shadow of a doubt.

If the civil case’s issue is more serious, this evidence would need to be more convincing.

Burden of Proof in Criminal Cases

Criminal cases arise in various ways in the United States. For example, state cases may come about as prosecutors or district attorneys file charges after a criminal police investigation. Federal cases may have US attorneys handling the public prosecution, but private prosecution is also a possibility.

Criminal cases may slot into one of the following subcategories:

  • Minor violations: Pay fines if guilty of infractions like parking violations.
  • Misdemeanors: More serious actions, such as shoplifting, vandalism, or assault, with a heftier fine, up to one year of jail time, or both.
  • Felonies: Severe crimes like rape, murder, and kidnapping are punishable by at least one year in the state prison and, in some states, the death penalty.

What is the burden of proof in criminal cases? In typical criminal cases, the burden of proof rests on the prosecutor. For example, a district attorney must prove the defendant is in the wrong, with a potential offender hardly ever required to present any evidence.

Since the penalties for these crimes can be severe, this prosecutor’s evidence must be beyond a reasonable doubt. Freedom is at stake for the defendant, so there is a weightier burden of proof. As such, the defendant has a better chance in certain types of cases, such as when claiming self-defense or insanity.

Standards of Proof

The level of evidence brought into a courtroom relies heavily on the case type. The more serious the accusations and penalties, the greater the proof will be for the law to dictate any drastic response. 

The three main types of evidence presented to judges and juries appear below.

The Preponderance of the Evidence

The first standard of proof is the preponderance of evidence, which court systems assign to civil cases. The punishment is light, such as a fine, and so the plaintiff only has to show why they think the defendant is at least 50% responsible for any injustice against them. This may include losses and suffering. 

The fee paid goes toward compensation for the plaintiff, perhaps to cover items such as:

  • Medical bills if injuries occurred via animal attacks from others’ pets, unsafe working conditions, or unkempt properties.
  • Lost wages if injuries have kept the plaintiff from working.
  • Property damage if the defendant has faced vandalism, arson, or theft.

Clear, Convincing Evidence

Clear and convincing evidence takes the preponderance of evidence in civil lawsuits up a notch if the crime is slightly more serious, such as someone undergoing discrimination at work and earning less than other employees. This might be in the form of fewer benefits or, more directly, emotional and mental abuse. In any case, the case will need to show clear and convincing evidence or more proof to achieve the outcome they want from their claims.

Judges and juries also require this higher standard of proof if the plaintiff demands more than just financial compensation for their troubles, such as in a breach of contract, property line dispute, or fraud case.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

What is the burden of proof for the highest level of crime? Evidence beyond a reasonable doubt underpins criminal cases. Judges are unlikely to ask for this level of proof in civil cases, no matter their severity.

Since the punishment for a crime of this nature may include taking away someone’s freedom, whether with jail time or a death sentence, providing evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty is essential. 

The Three Standards of Proof Compared

How do the above standards of proof potentially affect the burden of proof?

  • The preponderance of evidence is usually applicable to only less serious civil cases. The burden of proof is light.
  • Unlike the preponderance of evidence, there’s no need to reach a specific “percentage” of responsibility to encompass a “clear and convincing” case. Each case’s evidence falls on its own merits.
  • The burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt applies to everything criminal, including murder or rape trials—the defendant is innocent until proven otherwise. 

Burden of Proof Definition in Insurance Claims

So, does the burden of proof concept work similarly for your insurance claims? Let’s take a look at how this process works for insurance claims:

The Plaintiff

An insurer may refuse to cover certain costs after an accident or another incident. If so, the policyholder or plaintiff may decide to file against their insurance company. Often, they’ll use claims and policies as evidence to prove their insurer is legally and financially responsible. 

The Insurance Company

The responding insurance company may argue that the specific event or loss did not fall under the policy. For instance, a homeowner’s insurance policy might cover wind damage but not water damage. The insurer could try to convince the court that most of the damages occurred because of the latter.

Other Parties

When another party’s involvement causes an accident, such as two cars crashing, you may expect your car insurance company to pick up the costs of vehicle repairs and a passenger’s medical bills. The insurer may refuse, claiming the other driver’s insurance should pay.

In this case, a plaintiff will need to supply enough proof to satisfy the preponderance of the evidence or even clear and convincing evidence. Even in the example above where the insurer is pointing to the water damage over wind, your evidence must prove the opposite to sway the final ruling in your favor.

If a plaintiff wins the case in a civil court trial, they may receive what they want. However, there’s also a chance that if the defendant makes a valid counterclaim, the plaintiff may pay the price. 

A judge and jury citing a lack of evidence will likely side with the defendant, which can derail years of work for those seeking justice. A defendant found innocent during a criminal case may also claim damages on top of being able to walk free. That’s why strategy during litigation is crucial. 

The burden of proof definition and different types directly affects court decisions and legal outcomes. Legal counsel may advise canceling the judgment and asking for a new trial. However, to advise correctly, the team needs to have a deep understanding of how things look to those making important decisions with people’s possessions and lives.

Know Your Rights With Steinger, Greene & Feiner

What is the burden of proof to you? Since the answer can be complex, you’ll want to ably prove your story before a civil or criminal court and during all the stages of litigation. Even how you present proof could make or break your case, so why not enlist a dedicated legal team with a great track record? Steinger, Greene & Feiner offers 24/7 assistance, 100% virtual communication or in-person options, and a free case consultation. Call (813) 669-4742 today!

About the Author

Sean Greene
Sean Greene

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Sean J. Greene has recovered more than $150 million in the past 10 years for clients. He specializes within the firm in wrongful death, personal injury, medical malpractice, nursing home malpractice, and product liability cases. Sean has represented coaches and players in the National Football League (NFL) and Major League Baseball (MLB) who have been victims of personal injuries. In 2001, after winning a trial on liability, he recovered $11,200,000 for the family of David Griggs, the former Miami Dolphins player who died in an automobile accident in Broward County, Florida. He has received the highest distinction of an AV® rated attorney by Martindale-Hubbell, which recognizes Sean as possessing “Very High-Preeminent” legal ability with “Very High” ethical standards. Additionally, he is a member of the prestigious Multi-Million Dollar Advocates Forum whose membership is limited to trial lawyers who have achieved a trial verdict or settlement in the amount of $1,000,000 or more. Sean is widely known in South Florida, as he cohosted the TV program “Your Legal Rights” and lectures throughout the state of Florida on various legal issues.