If a case goes to trial, as the plaintiff, you bear the responsibility of proving your case against the defendant. Inversely, as the defendant, you enjoy the protection of the presumption of innocence. Contrary to popular belief, this presumption is not limited strictly to criminal law.
Unlike criminal law, however, the threshold of how much has to be proven, and how clear that proof has to be, is not nearly as strict. Let’s discuss these various thresholds, called standards of proof, what their differences are, why it’s important to know them, and what you will need to overcome them.
Why Does It Matter?
The ‘standard of proof’ represents the goal line of your case. If your case survives a motion to dismiss and summary judgment (although these standards do bear weight in summary judgment as well), then the case is likely to head to a trial where you will have to prove the factual basis of your accusations.
Whether tried before a judge or a jury, your case hinges on the ability to meet the standard of proof in question. The more egregious the accusation, the higher the threshold needed to prove it. Proving a charge of negligence resulting in your injury would require meeting a lower threshold than proving a charge of dangerous, reckless behavior. To read more about the differences between negligence and recklessness, you can visit our article here.
If you cannot meet the standard required, then you will not be able to succeed. That’s why it is helpful to understand where the bar that you have to clear is set. This will help you understand the sorts of documentation and evidence you will need to preserve to overcome these standards.
Preponderance of the Evidence
‘Preponderance of the evidence’ is the lowest standard of proof in the CA court system, and is used exclusively in civil cases. This standard of proof requires the plaintiff to prove that it is ‘more likely than not’ to be true. If we were to put a mathematical weight on this standard, you would have to prove a 51% chance that your arguments or accusations are correct.
As we mentioned, this is the lowest standard of evidentiary proof, and for a reason. Most common civil cases where malice or criminal conduct is not alleged typically fall under this standard.
Let’s be clear that there must be evidentiary weight to your arguments. This standard is not a simple 50% ‘coin flip.’ It is the analysis that the evidence indicated the other party was most likely at fault. Merely demonstrating the other party ‘could’ be responsible is not enough. You must show that they were likely responsible.
Clear and Convincing Evidence
‘Clear and convincing evidence’ is the next standard in the chain. It is a higher standard of proof than ‘preponderance of the evidence,’ but lower than ‘beyond a reasonable doubt.’ Courts use this standard in certain civil cases with particularly egregious accusations and some rare criminal cases.
Unlike ‘preponderance of the evidence,’ which we could theoretically boil down to a mathematical probability, there is no definitive point at which evidence becomes ‘clear and convincing.’ It is entirely subjective to the fact-finding party in the case (either the judge or jury). This is meant as a guiding principle. It requires that you demonstrate not just that the other party could be responsible for your damages, but a firm and powerful likelihood that it was the case. As you can imagine, this subjective standard is very difficult to demonstrate. However, let us offer an example.
You filed a lawsuit alleging you were assaulted by your former romantic partner. In your case, you presented text messages dated the same night as your assault, where your partner threatened that they were going to ‘make you regret what you did.’ Several neighbors also testified that they saw your ex enter your house and heard shouting and screaming soon afterward. This scenario stands an excellent chance of meeting the evidentiary standard of ‘clear and convincing evidence’ that your ex was responsible for your injuries, and had acted with clear malice.
This standard is most often used in cases where serious consequences are at stake, such as termination of parental rights, accusations of fraud, claims of criminal conduct, or cases involving a defendant’s constitutional rights.
In a personal injury case, clear and convincing evidence might be required to prove that the defendant either acted with malice, or with a contemptuous disregard for the possibility of harming the plaintiff. Meeting this standard requires that the plaintiff present powerful and highly convincing evidence, leaving little room for doubt.
Beyond a Reasonable Doubt
Beyond a reasonable doubt is the highest threshold of proof in any court system, and is the standard for most criminal cases where the defendant’s freedom is at stake. This standard is exclusively used in criminal cases and is the highest standard of proof required. A plaintiff or defendant in civil cases will never need to concern themselves with this standard of proof unless their civil trial winds up as evidence in a criminal trial down the road.
Beyond a reasonable doubt is a standard in which the fact-finding party is left with no other rational explanation than to believe that the defendant is guilty of the acts as alleged. If there is any other reasonable alternative, that explanation must be assumed to be true. The prosecution must disprove any other reasonably possible alternative and demonstrate that the defendant must have committed the crime. Any doubts raised by the defense must be resolved in favor of the defendant.
This high standard of proof is designed to protect the innocent from being wrongly convicted when their freedom or even their life is on the line.
Practical Reality and How We Can Help
The reality is that these standards of proof are ultimately subjective and frequently unclear. Every judge and jury will have their own interpretation of when these standards have been met, their own emotional investment in the case, as well as simply the capacity to make mistakes. That’s why it is crucial not only to have convincing evidence on your side, but a skilled and competent attorney to present that evidence in a narratively powerful and convincing manner. Having taken over 70 cases to trial, our team has the experience to make sure that your evidence is presented with all its due weight, and not muddied by a nervous or unconvincing courtroom appearance. Protect the integrity of your case and contact us today for a free consultation.