Whenever a party brings an allegation in any case, that party must prove those allegations. The standard or burden of proof varies depending on the type of case involved. In civil cases, for example, the burden of proof is usually preponderance of the evidence. This standard requires the plaintiff to prove that the complaint’s allegations are more likely true than not. Many commentators have described it as the plaintiff’s burden to tip the proof scales in the plaintiff’s direction. Others have attempted to quantify it by saying that if the plaintiff can establish the facts to 51%, the plaintiff has satisfied the evidence’s preponderance. There are different burdens of proof in different types of actions. For instance, in criminal cases, the burden of proof is beyond a reasonable doubt. If a preponderance of the evidence is considered to be slight tipping of the scale in the plaintiff’s favor, proof beyond a reasonable doubt would require the government to swing the scale entirely to its side. Although the preponderance of the evidence is the most commonly seen burden of proof, there are situations in which a civil litigant might have to prove his or her case with clear and convincing evidence. The standard of “clear and convincing evidence” is higher than a preponderance of the evidence and less than proof beyond a reasonable doubt. It falls somewhere between these two burdens. Clear and convincing evidence requires the fact finder to determine with substantial certainty that the party’s allegations are true.
The question often arises: Why would civil cases usually require a preponderance of the evidence but, in rare instances, require a higher degree of proof? Clear and convincing evidence is reserved for instances in which the parties’ result will substantially impact their lives. A court might require clear and convincing evidence in any of the following actions:
• Committing an individual to a mental institution.
• Deciding to withdraw life support from a patient in a persistent vegetative state.
• Parental rights.
• Disbarment of an attorney.
• Allegation of improper actions in an election.
In each of these examples, the issues involved have such a significant potential impact on the parties that courts routinely require a higher standard of proof before allowing the action. Whether it involves removing life support from a patient or disbarring an attorney, these actions will have such drastic consequences that many states require the standard of clear and convincing evidence before a judge is authorized to make a ruling on them.
The burden of proof in a civil case, whether it is clear and convincing evidence or a preponderance of the evidence, is never as high a standard as required in criminal cases. Prosecutors in a criminal trial must prove that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Although legal commentators and authorities have wrestled for centuries over the exact meaning of this term, most define it as substantial or overwhelming evidence that the defendant committed the crime with which he, she, or it is charged. Proof beyond a reasonable doubt means that the individual jurors in the case are convinced of the evidence against the defendant and have no major objections to the case pre- sented. This higher standard is required in criminal cases for the straightforward reason that it should be more difficult to imprison a person than it is to assess monetary damages against him or her.
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