In a court case, the "burden of proof" is the duty that is placed on one party to prove -- to the judge or jury -- that his or her version of the facts is true. But this burden also exists (albeit informally) in other settings. Whether you are seeking an insurance settlement after a car accident or are bringing a car accident lawsuit to court, you will need to know who has the burden of proof and how much evidence the party with the burden must present in order to establish his or her side of the case.
In this article, we'll look at the burden of proof in the context of a car accident case.
Picture the following example: Driver A is traveling down a city street at the posted speed limit, when she approaches an intersection. She has a green light, so she keeps driving. Halfway through the intersection, Driver A's vehicle is struck on its passenger side by Driver B, who ran through the red light. Driver A is injured and her vehicle is totaled. She wishes to seek compensation from Driver B's insurance company, and she is willing to file a lawsuit against Driver B in court if necessary.
In this situation, Driver A has the burden of proof, because she is the one bringing the claim against Driver B. Driver A must establish that Driver B was at fault for the car accident and caused Driver A's injuries and vehicle damage. Here, Driver A will most likely use the fact that Driver B ran a red light to show that Driver B was the one at fault. Violations of traffic rules can be powerful evidence, but they are only one way that a driver with the burden of proof might establish that another person was at fault for a crash.
In many car accidents, more than one person may bear some degree of legal fault. This is particularly true in multi-vehicle accidents, or "chain-reaction" collisions.
When multiple drivers are at fault, any driver who brings a claim against any other driver has the burden of proof in establishing fault for that particular collision and the specific damages that resulted. Multiple-driver fault and burden of proof typically plays out in two major ways: the multi-vehicle accident and the shared-fault accident.
Multi-Vehicle Accidents and Burden of Proof
Suppose that, on a snowy day, Drivers W, X, Y, and Z are following one another in one lane of traffic on a highway, when Driver W suddenly hits her brakes in response to seeing a deer on the side of the road. Driver X cannot react in time to stop safely and rear-ends Driver W. Driver Y is also unable to stop in time, and rear-ends Driver X. The same thing happens to Driver Z, who cannot stop in time to avoid hitting Driver Y. Each of the four drivers feels that one of the others is liable, so they each sue: Driver W blames Driver X, Driver X blames Driver Y, Driver Y blames Driver Z, and Driver Z blames Driver W for "panicking" at the sight of the deer.
Who has the burden of proof? Here, each driver has the burden to show that the driver he or she blames for the accident is actually the one responsible for that driver's damages. For instance, Driver W has the burden of proof to show that Driver X was at fault for her injuries. Driver X, who blamed Driver Y, has the burden of proof to show that Driver Y was at fault for Driver X's injuries, and so on. In cases like these, insurance adjusters and attorneys for each of the parties may negotiate extensively to determine what portion of fault for the total accident should be assigned to each driver, and how any insurance settlements paid on behalf of each driver are affected by the allocation of fault. (More: Car Accidents When Several Others are Responsible.)
Shared-Fault Accidents and Burden of Proof
In the example above, the various drivers may be found to share fault in the accident, but the burden of proof for each amount of fault is still on the driver who claims the fault exists.
Here is another example of shared fault and the burden of proof at work. Suppose that Driver C files a claim against Driver D after Driver D rear-ended Driver C's car. Driver C has the burden of proof when it comes to answering the question, "Was Driver D at fault for the crash?"
However, suppose that in response to Driver C's claim, Driver D raises his own counterclaim: that Driver C is at fault for cutting in front of Driver D too quickly for Driver D to avoid the accident. While Driver C still bears the burden of establishing Driver D's fault, Driver D now bears the burden of proof in establishing that Driver C was responsible.
(Learn more about shared fault in car accident cases.)