The Burden of Proof and Persuasion in Civil and Criminal Cases

By | January 24, 2017

In the summer of 2015, a jury awarded over $20 million to a mother whose son was killed in San Bernardino while crossing an uncontrolled five lane highway to reach the only school bus stop near his home. The San Bernardino injury attorneys  representing his family in the wrongful death claim alleged that requiring a young student to cross a multi-lane highway was in direct violation of California law and the jury agreed, finding the school district 100% at fault for the accident. No fault was assigned to the driver of the vehicle who struck and killed the student.

Wrongful death cases such as these are nothing short of tragic, but they also highlight an important difference between how evidence is handled in different types of cases. All legal claims rely on evidence to support the story of each party, thereby finding if the defendant is guilty or not. However, the “burden of proof” and determining the validity of the proof in question varies greatly between civil and criminal cases.

What is the Burden of Proof?

The burden of proof is a party’s responsibility to either validate or deny a disputed fact. Most times, the burden of proof is on the plaintiff or prosecution. As the presumption of innocence dictates, it makes sense that the accusing party holds the burden of producing the necessary evidence to find someone guilty. However, plaintiffs and prosecutors don’t always hold the burden of proof. In order to establish certain defenses, the burden of proof can shift to a defendant in order to prove their defense against a specific allegation.

The Burden of Persuasion in Civil Cases

In a civil case, such as a personal injury claim, the plaintiff must show that the defendant was negligent and therefore responsible for the injury or wrongdoing. Negligence can be boiled down to four elements: duty, a breach of that duty, causation, and damages. A plaintiff must prove that the defendant owed a legal duty to the plaintiff under the circumstances at hand, that duty was broken based on action or inaction, this action or inaction was the cause of the harm, and that harm resulted in actual injury or damages. Pretty straight forward right? However, this is where things get subjective.

When determining the burden of persuasion in civil cases, the key phrase to remember is more likely than not or the preponderance of evidence. This means that the judge or jury must have over 50% confidence in the story and evidence that is presented in a case. Using these terms as a guide then, a plaintiff in a civil case has a relatively low burden of persuasion because they merely have to convince the judge or jury that their version of the facts is 51% true. A defendant, other than to bolster a defense, does not have to prove anything. Rather they need to cast doubt on the plaintiff’s story and show that their version is more likely to be false than true. Going back to the case above then, the plaintiff’s attorneys only had to convince the jury that having the only nearby bus stop for the student to use across the street from an unprotected highway was more likely than not the cause for him being hit and killed by a car.

The Burden of Persuasion in Criminal Cases

Conversely, the burden of persuasion in criminal cases is much more stringent, and rightfully so considering that the consequences for a conviction can include prison time or even a death sentence. In a criminal case, the phrase to use as a guide is beyond a reasonable doubt. This is to say that the judge or jury should have no other logical explanation, based on the evidence presented at trial, that the defendant did not commit the crime. Because of these terms, criminal cases have the highest standard of proof in any type of trial. Back to the original case above, since the school district was found to be 100% at fault for the accident, the driver could not be liable for involuntary manslaughter even though they were behind the wheel of the vehicle that struck and eventually killed the student.

Another more notorious example of this difference in the burden of persuasion involves the case of O.J. Simpson, who was found not guilty of criminal charges but liable for the wrongful death of his ex-wife and Ron Goldman to the tune of almost $34 million. Because of the differences in the burden of persuasion for criminal and civil cases, similar evidence led to opposite outcomes in each case.

Regardless of what type of case you are facing, knowing the differences between how evidence is handled in each type is critical to a success result. Always be sure to consult with an experienced legal team who will properly handle the evidence that is critical to presenting your case.

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