When a defendant’s life or freedom is on the line in criminal court, there is a high burden of proof to convict them. That bar means the prosecutor must prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt. Less hangs in the balance in a civil trial. Money is generally the only thing on the line, so the level of proof required by the plaintiff is less.
The burden of proof refers to which party is responsible for providing evidence as well as the level of evidence required to win their case. Depending on the type of injury case, the evidentiary threshold to find in favor of the plaintiff in Massachusetts is generally a preponderance of evidence but some monetary awards require clear and convincing evidence.
Let’s look at the differences between the standards of proof and what types of cases require each.
Preponderance of Evidence
Preponderance of the evidence is a mid-range burden of proof that falls below beyond a reasonable doubt and clear and convincing evidence. To prove your case with a preponderance of evidence means that more than likely your account – not the defendant’s – is accurate.
Your argument more likely than not satisfies the four requirements of a personal injury case:
- Duty. The defendant had a legal duty to behave or perform in a reasonable manner under the circumstances.
- Breach. The defendant did not behave in a reasonable manner, breaching their duty.
- Causation. The defendant knew or should have known their actions or inactions would cause harm.
- Harm. The plaintiff suffered real harm, with proof such as medical bills and time out of work.
In personal injury cases, the plaintiff has the burden to prove the four elements. The defendant tries to prevent the plaintiff from meeting its burden of proof in any of the four elements. Physical evidence (photos, video, hospital bills, etc.), witness accounts, and expert testimony are used to prove the plaintiff’s case. The plaintiff wins the case if they prove by a preponderance of evidence the defendant committed the act and satisfies the four elements of negligence. If not, the defendant prevails.
Personal injury cases that require a preponderance of the evidence include the following:
Clear and Convincing Evidence
Up one level from preponderance of evidence is clear and convincing evidence. This threshold means that the evidence shows the argument is substantially more likely to be true. The jury or judge must have a clear and firm belief (greater than more likely than not) that what the plaintiff alleges probably happened. While most personal injury cases require the preponderance standard, clear and convincing is required when seeking punitive damages.
Punitive damages punish the defendant for their conduct rather than compensate the plaintiff (or the deceased’s family) for their injuries. Few personal injury cases qualify for punitive damages in Massachusetts. These damages are available only in cases that a person’s gross negligence or willful conduct causes a death. Compensatory damages (medical bills, lost wages, and pain and suffering) only require preponderance of the evidence.
Outside of personal injury, the other civil cases that require this higher burden:
- Terminating parental rights
- Temporary mental health commitments
- Withdrawing life support
- Determinations about substance or alcohol abuse
Beyond a Reasonable Doubt
Beyond a reasonable doubt is the highest evidentiary bar. This burden of proof is the standard for all criminal cases. A jury must be convinced that there is no other rational explanation for what happened and are essentially certain the defendant committed the crime.
There is limited use of this highest burden of proof in civil matters. It is the standard used when determining if a person should be committed to a psychiatric facility because they are a danger to themselves or others. Beyond a reasonable doubt is the standard in these cases because the defendant can be committed for an indefinite period, potentially the rest of their lives.
Hire Experience for Your Personal Injury Lawsuit
At Percy Law Group, PC, our goal is to provide the highest levels of service to our clients. If you have been injured in an accident that was caused by someone else, you may have a personal injury claim. Don’t suffer through the overwhelming costs of medical treatment, lost wages, pain, rehabilitation, and other expenses. Our skilled and knowledgeable legal team at Percy Law Group, PC has extensive experience in meeting the burden of proof.
Schedule an initial consultation to learn how we might be able to help you seek fair compensation. Reach out using our online form or call (508) 206-9900.