What Is the “Burden of Proof” in My Civil Case?

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undefinedMany people believe that, simply because they are injured as result of another’s negligence, they are entitled to any and all medical treatment they receive for any injury that may develop after the accident. However, simply being involved in an accident does not ensure that you will recover damages against a third person or entity. A plaintiff has to show by a preponderance of the evidence not only that the third party was negligent, but also that this negligence was the proximate cause of their injury. This is what is called the burden of proof.

A plaintiff always has the burden of proving their case at trial. Preponderance of the evidence is a fancy way of saying that a given proposition is more probably true than not. Essentially, you need to show that the crucial issues/elements of your case are in your favor by more than 50%. Contrast this with the burden that a prosecutor has in a criminal trial, beyond a reasonable doubt. To be sure, this is a much higher burden to meet and is not required for civil trials.  What is the reason for a different standard? The stakes are much higher in a criminal case where someone’s freedom is at stake. However, it is important that jurors understand the difference in a civil case so that they are not holding plaintiffs to the much higher standard which, quite frankly, would be difficult to overcome in a civil case where people often have preexisting conditions or prior injuries to the same body part.

In Illinois, a plaintiff must only show that the accident was a contributing factor in the resulting injury. Thus, if the accident was at least a 1% cause of the injury, it is sufficient to establish proximate cause.  How does this work when I said earlier that the burden is more than 50%? Well, you need to show that it is more probably true than not that the accident was at least a contributing factor in causing the injury. If you meet that burden, you win. This is of utmost importance when you have an injury to a body part for which you had already received treatment in the past or for which you have an underlying degenerative condition.

Simply put, explaining the burden of proof to a jury is not easy, especially the way in which TV shows and movies have skewed the general public’s view. Seasoned trial lawyers understand the way in which the burden of proof must be explained to a jury and to ensure that jurors do not confuse it with the much higher criminal standard.


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