Meeting the Burden of Proof in a Car Accident Injury Claim

What types of evidence will you need and what will you need to prove to make a personal injury claim after a car accident?

What is a burden of proof?   Simply put, it is the duty  that  the person bringing  a legal case has to show that the allegations being made are true --  or that they are at least likely true --  based on the evidence. There are different standards of proof for different kinds of cases.

For example, in a criminal case, the prosecutor has the burden of proving that the defendant is "guilty beyond a reasonable doubt."  The prosecutor must establish that, given all the facts, there is no  reasonable conclusion to reach, other than  that the defendant committed the crime.  

Civil lawsuits, such as a car accident case, require that the person suing (the plaintiff)  meet a different burden of proof, once that isn't as challenging.  In civil cases, this burden is generally "by a preponderance of the evidence" or "more likely than not" that the  plaintiff’s allegations are true and  the defendant is liable for the plaintiff's harm.

Since most car accident cases involve the legal fault concept known as negligence, let's focus on the plaintiff's burden of proof when it comes to establishing that the defendant was in fact negligent.

When we're talking about a car accident case,  meeting the burden of proof means establishing the four elements of negligence: 1) that the defendant owed a duty of care to the plaintiff, 2) that the duty of care was breached, 3) that the defendant's  negligence was the cause of an injury; and 4) that the plaintiff was in fact injured.

Duty of Care

The injured plaintiff must first prove that the defendant  had a duty to exercise reasonable care and caution  in regard to  the plaintiff's safety.   Sometimes the duty of care is obvious. For instance, there is little question that the law requires that everyone who drives a car exercise caution and safety when operating their  vehicle, in order to ensure the safety of others on the road. It usually comes down to what is and is not reasonable to expect of the defending driver under the circumstances.  

Breach of Duty

Once the plaintiff has established that the defendant  had a duty  to act with reasonable  care, the plaintiff must next prove that the defendant breached that duty.   Generally, this means proving that the defendant failed to act the way a reasonably careful person would have acted, in the same situation.  In a car accident case, a police report showing that the defendant was driving drunk, speeding, driving recklessly, or following too closely can help plaintiff prove that the defendant's conduct was outside the "reasonableness" norm. Witnesses to the incident  can  also testify as to  what they observed, and photographs of the accident scene can paint a picture of what happened to help establish fault and liability.


The plaintiff also must prove that the defendant's conduct – and resulting car accident - caused the injury.  That is, the plaintiff must prove that but for the defendant's conduct, the injury would not have happened.  Sometimes causation is obvious.  If the defendant drove a car over the pedestrian plaintiff's foot and the plaintiff suffered broken bones, then it is clear that but for the defendant's bad driving, the plaintiff would still have a healthy foot.  Other times, causation  is more difficult to establish, such as when the plaintiff has a preexisting condition.  For instance, a plaintiff who has had previous back problems may have a more difficult time proving that being rear-ended by the defendant's vehicle  caused the plaintiff's current back pain.

Injury and Damages

Finally, the plaintiff must prove the details and extent of the resulting injury to make a personal injury claim.  Proof of injury is generally shown through photographic evidence, medical records, and  testimony of medical providers. The amount of money that the plaintiff is entitled to, known as "damages," must also be supported by evidence. Why is the plaintiff entitled to  the amount that he or she is asking for?

Obviously, medical treatment records and  bills are the best  evidence of injuries and their extent. And any claim for future medical care will usually need to be supported by expert medical testimony.  Tax returns and payroll information from employers can establish lost income. Finally, the plaintiff's own testimony can establish  more intangible  injuries such as pain and suffering and loss of enjoyment.

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