What’s the Burden of Proof In Personal Injury Cases?

If you’ve been hurt in an accident, you may be thinking about damages and what evidence is needed to secure a fair settlement or reasonable jury award.

Elements of a Personal Injury Claim

There are many underlying legal bases for personal injury claims - negligence, intentional torts, products liability, wrongful death, and more. However, negligence is the most common. 

In a personal injury claim for negligence, Oklahoma law requires that the plaintiff satisfy the burden of proof for four elements:

  1. The defendant owes a duty of care  to protect the plaintiff from injury;
  2. The defendant breached that duty 
  3. The breach caused the plaintiff harm.
  4. The plaintiff suffered damages.

The burden of proof is a legal standard. It is the amount of proof that a party must present to legally prove a fact or establish an element. In a negligence suit, the plaintiff must satisfy the burden of proof for each element listed above.

Preponderance of the Evidence

This is the most common standard. It’s used to establish the elements of a personal injury case. 

Oklahoma law defines preponderance of the evidence as:

“the evidence which is of greater weight or more convincing than the evidence which is offered in opposition to it; evidence which as a whole shows that the fact sought to be proved is more probable than not.”

In layman's terms, this means that the plaintiff must show that their claim is more likely than not. To meet this burden, the plaintiff presents physical evidence, witness testimony, and exhibits. On the other hand, the defendant faces no obligation to rebut the plaintiff’s evidence with their own to disprove the case. It is solely the plaintiff’s responsibility to establish an element of their claim. 

If a plaintiff cannot meet the preponderance of the evidence burden of proof, their claim will be unsuccessful. Meeting the preponderance of the evidence standard is not a numbers game. It’s not a contest to see which side can produce the most witnesses or exhibits.

For example, assume that you were bitten by a neighbor’s dog. You sue the neighbor. A key issue in the case is likely to be whether that dog has bitten someone before. You have one witness who testifies that they saw the dog bite a mail carrier a few months ago. The defendant testifies that his dog has never bitten anyone and provides four witnesses making the same claim. Furthermore, the defendant produces a video showing the dog being friendly around children.

Just because the defendant produced more witnesses and exhibits than you doesn’t mean they’ll prevail. A jury could assess the credibility and demeanor of all the witnesses and find you and your witness more credible than the defendant’s. The jury may, therefore, conclude that the dog has bitten before. That is a reasonable outcome - the jury weighs competing evidence and determines which evidence is more believable.

Other Burdens of Proof

There are other legal standards of proof in Oklahoma law. 

Probable Cause

This standard is applied in Fourth Amendment search and seizure law. According to the Supreme Court, probable cause exists where the evidence presented shows that “there is a fair probability that contraband or evidence of a crime will be found in a particular place.”  

Courts also apply this standard in preliminary hearings. It is used to determine whether there is sufficient evidence for a jury to find that the defendant committed a charged crime. If probable cause is found, then the defendant goes to trial.

Clear and Convincing Evidence

This is a higher standard than the preponderance of the evidence. 

Oklahoma law defines it this way:

“Clear and convincing evidence is that measure or degree of proof which will produce in the mind of the trier of fact a firm belief or conviction as to the truth of the allegation sought to be established.”

In other words, a party must prove their case to a jury to the point it develops a firm belief or conviction that their case is true. A preponderance of the evidence, or “more likely than not,” is insufficient.  In Oklahoma, for a plaintiff to prevail on punitive damages, they must prove by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant acted recklessly or with fraud or malice.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

Anyone who reads a legal thriller or watches a court drama on TV is familiar with this burden of proof. The prosecution in a criminal case must prove that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. This means it must demonstrate to the jury there is no rational explanation other than the defendant committed the crime.

Shifting the Burden of Proof

Generally, the burden of proof rests with the plaintiff. However, there are times in Oklahoma law when the burden of proof shifts from the plaintiff to the defendant. 

For example, in workers’ compensation cases, the plaintiff often introduces the treating physician’s report into the record. The law presumes that this report establishes the need for disability or other medical care. Suppose the defendant wishes to challenge this. Then the burden of proof shifts to the defendant to do so. This is an example where the defendant, not the plaintiff, has the burden to prove something. 

Contact an Attorney to See if Your Case Meets the Burden of Proof

It can be challenging for the plaintiff to meet the burden of proof, whether it be preponderance of the evidence or clear and convincing evidence. In either case, our personal injury attorneys know the types of evidence necessary and how to present it to help the plaintiff establish the elements of their claims.