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“Preponderance of the Evidence” vs. “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt”

“Preponderance of the Evidence” vs. “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt”

Standards of Evidence in Criminal and Civil Cases

Burden of proof is a legal construct which states that one must provide enough relevant evidence supporting their claim or argument in order for a judge or jury to rule in their favor. While most are familiar with the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard used in criminal cases, civil lawsuits use a different standard called “preponderance of the evidence.”

Criminal cases and civil cases (e.g. personal injury lawsuits) vary greatly in many respects. That said, evidence is always the key factor in deciding a case. The burden of proof in any case lies with the plaintiff (person or entity bringing the claim) as opposed to the defendant. While prosecutors in criminal trials must prove that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, plaintiffs in civil trials must only prove their case by a preponderance of the evidence. That said, it’s not exactly clear to the average American what these two terms actually mean or how they differ.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

In a criminal case, the defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty. The plaintiff in a criminal case (also known as the prosecutor, state or government) must produce evidence to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant (accused) committed the crime for which they are being charged.

Essentially, this means that the case must be proven to an extent that no “reasonable person” could “reasonably doubt” the defendant’s guilt. While there can still be doubt in the mind of a juror, this doubt “must not affect a reasonable person’s belief regarding whether or not the defendant is guilty.”

The reason for this high burden of proof can be partially explained by Blackstone’s formulation, which states that “it is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” The consequences of a wrongful conviction are extremely serious, and for that reason, the courts must err on the side of innocence.

Preponderance of the Evidence

Civil cases, on the other hand, are not as difficult to prove in court. Instead of proving your case beyond any reasonable doubt, the plaintiff must only show that their proposition is more likely to be true than not true. The preponderance of the evidence standard of proof (AKA balance of probabilities) is essentially met if there is greater than 50% chance that the plaintiff’s claims are true.

An Example: O.J. Simpson’s Criminal Case vs. Civil Lawsuit

The infamous O.J. Simpson case is a good example of how these two standards of proof differ from one another. While the prosecution had more than enough evidence to prove a preponderance of the evidence, the defense was able to bring forth many arguments which raised reasonable doubt with the jurors, and as such, Simpson was acquitted.

Later, in the civil wrongful death lawsuit brought against O.J. by the parents of Ron Goldman and the estate of Nicole Brown, O.J. Simpson was found responsible for the murders and ordered to pay $33.5 million in compensatory and punitive damages. In this case, the plaintiffs only had to show that Simpson was more-likely responsible for the murders than not.

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