The Burden of Proof in Criminal Cases vs. Personal Injury Cases

The burden of proof is an important concept that appears in criminal and personal injury cases. It refers to which party must bring evidence in support of their contentions. Generally speaking, the party bringing the lawsuit (the plaintiff) has the initial burden of proof; this means the prosecution in a criminal case and the injured victim in a personal injury case.

There are three primary standards for the burden of proof, which differ based on the amount of evidence that must be presented. The following sections will describe these standards in detail and how they apply in the context of a criminal case versus a personal injury case.

Burdens of Proof

The following is a description of the three main burden of proof standards that will appear in a criminal or personal injury case.

By a Preponderance of the Evidence

Out of the standards described in this article, “by a preponderance of the evidence” is the easiest for the plaintiff to satisfy. Under this burden of proof threshold, the applicable party must only present enough evidence to demonstrate that their contentions are more likely true than untrue. This type of burden of proof is often referred to as the “51%” threshold.

Clear and Convincing Evidence

This burden of proof is tougher to meet than the “by a preponderance of the evidence” standard. In this context, the appropriate party must bring sufficient evidence to show that their contentions are significantly more likely true than untrue. There is not usually a percentage assigned to this burden of proof, and it will be up to the trier of fact (usually the jury) to assess whether the standard has been met.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

This is the most rigorous burden of proof to satisfy among the three discussed here. To meet the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard, the party must bring enough evidence to demonstrate there is no other reasonable explanation for the issues at hand.

Criminal Cases and the Burden of Proof

In criminal cases, the main burden of proof standard that applies is “beyond a reasonable doubt.” The prosecution, therefore, has to meet the highest threshold in order to prevail. This makes sense because there is usually much at stake in a criminal trial: the defendant’s freedom.

There are other types of burden of proof that can apply in a criminal case, such as:

These other standards may play a pivotal role in the case, or they may only apply to a specific hearing or the circumstances leading up to the criminal charges.

The Burden of Proof in Personal Injury Cases

The primary burden of proof standard in a civil case, including a personal injury case, is “by a preponderance of the evidence.” The victim and their personal injury lawyer, therefore, must bring enough evidence to show it is at least 51% likely that the defendant is liable for their damages.

It is possible for a person to be acquitted at a criminal trial yet be found liable at a civil trial for the same alleged offense. One major reason for this is the difference in burdens of proof, as the standard that must be met in a criminal case is significantly more rigorous.

The “clear and convincing evidence” burden of proof also appears in personal injury cases, but only sometimes. This burden of proof may apply if the injured victim is seeking punitive damages, for instance. 

Punitive damages are only awarded when the at-fault party has acted egregiously and are meant to “punish” them for their actions. As these damages are reserved for extraordinary situations, there is a higher burden of proof to adhere to.

Special Circumstance: Affirmative Defenses

In criminal and civil cases, the defendant may sometimes raise an “affirmative defense.” A primary example of this is when a criminal defendant argues that they were acting in self-defense. For personal injury cases, the alleged liable party may assert that the victim has failed to mitigate their damages.

When the defendant raises an affirmative defense, the burden of proof shifts to them to establish its validity. In a personal injury case, the “by a preponderance of the evidence” burden of proof standard will usually apply to an affirmative defense. This standard also applies to criminal affirmative defenses, though some jurisdictions vary on the subject.

An Experienced West Chester Criminal Defense Attorney Can Protect Your Rights

If you’ve recently been accused of a crime, the burden of proof may play a key role in the outcome of your case. Hiring an experienced West Chester criminal defense lawyer means you’ll be well-equipped to work with the burden or burdens of proof that appear at various stages of the process.

Most criminal defense attorneys offer a free consultation to review your situation, so it is likely worth your time to reach out and learn about your legal options and rights.