Burden of Proof

The “burden of proof” standardizes the weight of evidence you need to win your claim. Texas law imposes very different standards depending on the possible consequences for the defendant. 

The burden of proof is relatively low, for example, in a car accident lawsuit where the consequences of defeat are limited to financial compensation. The burden of proof is very high, by contrast, in a criminal prosecution where the consequences for the defendant might include a prison sentence.

Applicable Burden of Proof Standards

Three main standards apply to the burden of proof in various types of cases: (i) “a preponderance of the evidence,” (ii) “clear and convincing evidence,” and iii) “guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.”

A “Preponderance of the Evidence”

A “preponderance of the evidence” is the easiest burden of proof to meet. To meet this standard, your evidence must at least slightly outweigh the other side’s evidence. To put it in percentage terms, your evidence must be sufficient to leave the judge or the jury at least 51% certain that your claims are true and the other side’s claims are false. Some people call it the “more likely than not” standard.  

Affirmative Defenses

An affirmative defense is a defense that a defendant uses to counter the plaintiff’s case against them. Not all possible defenses are affirmative defenses. In an affirmative defense, the defendant has the burden of proving their defense by a “preponderance of the evidence” in most instances. Examples of affirmative defenses include:

  • Assumption of the risk: The plaintiff understood the risk and chose to accept it.
  • Expiration of the statute of limitations deadline to file a lawsuit.
  • Comparative fault: The accident was partly the fault of the plaintiff. This will reduce the defendant’s liability but cannot eliminate it unless the plaintiff’s percentage of fault is at least 51%. 

Other affirmative defenses are also possible.

“Clear and Convincing Evidence”

“Clear and convincing evidence” is the operative burden of proof in the following legal actions: 

  • Punitive damages in a personal injury or wrongful death lawsuit arising from a drunk driving crash.
  • A case involving an attempt to terminate parental rights over a child.
  • The issuance of a restraining order.

Clear and convincing evidence is a standard of proof that is considerably harder to meet than the “preponderance of the evidence” standard outlined above. Nevertheless, it is much easier to meet than the “guilt beyond a reasonable doubt” standard outlined below. 

“Guilt Beyond a Reasonable Doubt”

Guilt beyond a reasonable doubt is used exclusively in criminal prosecutions. It doesn’t mean “guilt beyond a shadow of a doubt.” It means enough evidence that no “reasonable person”

would doubt the defendant’s guilt. No one can define this standard exactly, but the evidence of guilt must be overwhelming.

Other Burdens of Proof

Following are some of the other formulations of the burden of proof in different situations:

  • Substantial evidence: Less than a “preponderance of the evidence.” A court uses this standard to review the ruling of an administrative agency. It might use this standard to review a denial of immigration benefits, for example.
  • Probable cause: This is the standard that a police officer needs to place you under arrest. A magistrate will also apply this burden of proof to a police officer’s request for a search warrant.
  • Reasonable suspicion: This is the standard that a police officer needs to pat down your outer clothing looking for weapons.

You can challenge any of these actions based on whether the available evidence met the standard of proof at the time the action was taken. 

What Is a “Prima Facie” Case?

The plaintiff or the prosecutor must introduce enough evidence to meet the applicable burden of proof absent any evidence from the defendant. This is what a “prima facie case” is. If they don’t have a prima facie case by the time they rest their case, the judge will dismiss it before the defendant can submit evidence. If they rest their case with a prima facie case, the burden of proof switches to the defendant to prove their defense. 

Consequences of a Disparity in the Burden of Proof

The disparities among the various burdens of proof can result in some very counterintuitive results. One example is the highly publicized O.J. Simpson case in the 1990s. In this case, football legend O.J. Simpson was acquitted of two counts of murder in a criminal case. Sometime later, a civil jury found him liable for two wrongful death lawsuit claims based on exactly the same events. 

If you ever sue a defendant for wrongful death, you can still win even if a criminal court acquits the defendant of homicide.

Is It Time To Contact a Dallas Personal Injury Lawyer?

You probably need a lawyer if you are asking for a significant amount of money.  Proving a claim through admissible evidence is deceptively difficult, and it is subject to the quirks of the Texas Rules of Evidence. Our experienced personal injury lawyers will understand the process inside and out, contact us at Jay Murray Personal Injury Lawyers for a free consultation at (214) 855-1420.