Whenever a jury is involved in a DC personal injury case, the judge will issue a set of guidelines called a jury instruction. This set of guidelines helps aid the jurors to arrive at a verdict with the most knowledge and understanding on how to approach the testimony and evidence brought before them.
One of the most common jury instructions is about the burden of proof. In both civil and criminal cases, jurors need to understand the rules surrounding burden of proof in order to best make their final decision.
Below is an example of a jury instruction about the burden of proof from a civil court in Washington D.C.
Burden of Proof (D.C. Std. Civ. Jury Instr. No. 2-3)
The party who makes a claim [or counterclaim] has the burden of proving it. This burden means that the plaintiff must prove every element of [his/her] claim by a preponderance of evidence [and defendant must prove every element of [his/her] counterclaim by a preponderance of the evidence].
To establish an element by a preponderance of the evidence, the party must show evidence that produces in your mind the belief that the thing in question is more likely true than not true. The party need not prove any element beyond reasonable doubt, the standard of proof in criminal cases, or to an absolute or mathematical certainty.
If you believe that the evidence is evenly balanced on an issue the plaintiff had to prove, then your finding on that issue must be for the defendant. [Similarly, if you believe that the evidence is evenly balanced on an issue the defendant had to prove, then your finding on that issue must be for the plaintiff]/
In arriving at your verdict, you should consider only the evidence in this case. That said, in determining whether a party has carried its burden of proof, you are permitted to draw from the facts that you find have been proven, such reasonable [inferences] [conclusions] as you feel justified in the light of your experience and common sense. You should not rely on speculation or guesswork.
You should consider all the evidence bearing on each claim, regardless of who has produced it. A party is entitled to benefit from all evidences that favors that party, whether that party or the adversary produced it. You should not give more or less weight to evidence just because it happened to be produced by one side or the other.
[In this case, the [plaintiff/defendant] has asserted affirmative defenses that [he/she] must prove by a preponderance of evidence if the [plaintiff/defendant] has proven [his/her] [claim/counterclaim]. When I discuss each of these defenses, I will instruct you on the defendant’s burden of proof.
So, what does it all mean?
In every case — from DC auto accidents to Maryland wrongful death cases — jury instructions are intended to clearly set out rules and stipulations of a case. However, jury instructions can often be confusing, especially when it comes to the burden of proof. This jury instruction is laying out the regulations for determining if a case have been proven or not. To put it simply, if a party accuses another party of an illegal action, they have the responsibility to show that their accusation is right. In other words, the burden of proof rule is the court’s way of making sure that nobody can cry wolf, so to speak.
Let’s break it down.
First and foremost, this instruction explains that the plaintiff, the person or party who brings the case to court, has the burden of proof. (Remember: typically the plaintiff will be represented by a personal injury attorney DC, Maryland, Virginia, and the surrounding areas count on). They must prove that all of their accusations are true, which usually requires evidence, like say, photographs or expert witness testimony. This is easier in civil court, because the standard is lower than the criminal standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt” (which is a whole other issue).
What does a “preponderance of the evidence” mean?
A preponderance of the evidence simply means you either need to have a lot of evidence brought before you heavily favoring one side, or the evidence brought before you needs to be extremely important. For example, if you have a lot of witness testimonies that all point to one party’s case, this would likely qualify as a preponderance of evidence. Similarly, if you have video footage of someone texting while driving in a DC DUI accident, it is likely that this is important enough to carry the case.
What if the evidence seems equal for both sides?
In this case, your findings should always rule in favor of the defendant.
Can evidence brought forth by one party be used against them?
The short answer is absolutely. Each party has an equal right to every piece of evidence brought before the court, even if it’s not theirs. For example, think about a typical Arlington, Virginia slip and fall case on stairs at a workplace. The plaintiff may bring forth video evidence of the fall. However, if the defendant — in this example the person responsible for the safety of the workplace — notices in the video that the plaintiff failed to use a handrail provided, then the video evidence may actually help them.
Can I speculate about the case?
No, the judge makes it very clear that your decision should be based entirely on evidence, even if you have a feeling a party may be guilty.
Ultimately, the burden of proof is simply the rule that requires the plaintiff bringing forth the case to prove with enough evidence that their accusations are correct.
Please do not rely on any above statements as legal advice. You should always seek the advice of a licensed lawyer in order to assist you.