Plaintiffs’ Burden of Proof in Negligence Cases Briefly Explained
Negligence cases are plentiful and are the bread and butter of civil litigation. These cases seek to compensate plaintiffs harmed by someone’s failure to exercise reasonable care. At the heart of every legal proceeding lies the concept of burden of proof — outlining what a party must prove to be successful at trial. In this post, we examine the burden of proof in negligence cases, its significance and implications.
Negligence law refers to the failure to exercise reasonable care, leading to foreseeable harm to others. To establish a successful negligence claim, plaintiffs must prove four key elements:
- Duty of Care: The defendant owed a legal duty to the plaintiff to act with reasonable care.
- Breach of Duty: The defendant breached this duty by acting or failing to act in a manner that a reasonable person would not.
- Causation: The defendant’s breach of duty was the direct cause of the plaintiff’s harm.
- Damages: The plaintiff suffered actual harm, whether physical, emotional, or financial, as a result of the defendant’s breach.
Negligence Burden of Proof Defined
Burden of proof refers to the obligation of a party to provide sufficient evidence to persuade the court or jury that their version of events is true. In negligence cases, the burden of proof rests on the plaintiff.
The Standard of Proof
While burden of proof means the onus is on the party bringing the cause of action (plaintiff), the standard of proof refers to the level of proof demanded. In negligence cases, the standard of proof is often referred to as the “preponderance of evidence.” This standard requires the plaintiff to show that their version of events is more probable than not—essentially, that it’s more than 50% likely to be true. Contrast this obligation with the State’s “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard in criminal cases, which demands a higher level of certainty.
Shifting the Burden: Contributory and Comparative Negligence
While the plaintiff bears the initial burden of proof in negligence cases, some jurisdictions apply principles of comparative or contributory negligence that can shift this burden to some extent.
- Contributory Negligence: In jurisdictions that adhere to contributory negligence, if the plaintiff’s own negligence contributed to the harm, they may be barred from recovering any damages. In pure contributory negligence jurisdictions, if a plaintiff is found 1% at fault for the accident/incident, there is no recovery.
- Comparative Negligence: Comparative negligence jurisdictions allow plaintiffs to recover damages even if they were partially responsible for the harm. The court or jury determines the degree of fault for both parties, and damages are awarded proportionally. Modified comparative negligence jurisdictions will proportionally award damages only if plaintiff was less than a certain level of fault. Some states require plaintiff to no more than 50% at fault. Others require plaintiff to be less at fault for the occurrence than the defendant(s) (51%).
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Contributory/Comparative Settlement Values
Understanding the burden of proof in its entirety means understanding the concept’s practical application. For example, different contributory/comparative negligence standards, as outlined above, significantly impact the settlement value of any particular case. Since most negligence cases are settled prior to trial, it is important to analyze their implications further.
Consider the burden of proof in a negligence case involving an automobile accident which occurs at a traffic signal. Both parties offer testimony during the discovery phase of the proceedings prior to trial. Each driver insists he had the green light when they entered the intersection. Obviously, this cannot be true, but consider further that both are credible witnesses. In other words, it’s a coin flip which driver the jury might believe. It’s a 50-50 proposition.
In a jurisdiction where a modified comparative negligence standard is applied, you might expect a reasonable settlement offer to be reduced by 50%. That is, if a reasonable settlement was $100,000 for example, plaintiff would be prudent to consider an offer for $50,000.
In a contributory negligence standard, you would expect a settlement offer to be substantially lower. The offer would not be so little that the plaintiff would adamantly refuse, but certainly not as much as under a comparative negligence standard, since the plaintiff (and attorney) risks a total loss at trial if plaintiff is found even 1% at fault.
The burden of proof in negligence cases ensures that claims are substantiated by real and credible evidence. Examining burden of proof in negligence cases empowers plaintiffs to navigate the legal landscape armed with the knowledge that can guide prudent decisions. Understanding that settlements make sense for all involved, this information can be extremely valuable.
Thank you for your interest in the burden of proof in negligence cases.