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The Burden of Proof in Small Claims Cases

The plaintiff in a small claims case — the person bringing the case against a defendant — always has the burden of proof. This means that you have the responsibility to establish what happened and have enough evidence that the defendant is responsible for the damages that resulted to convince the judge your story is the more believable one.

The term often used is that you have to establish your prima facie case in order to prevail at trial. Prima facie is Latin that means “at first appearance,” so, essentially, you have to prove that your case is what it seems to be.

What this means is that after the judge hears what you’ve said, the judge can say, “You’ve told me enough, so let me hear what the defendant has to say.”

An example of failing to make out a prima facie case would be a car accident where you’re looking to have the defendant pay for the damage to your car. You just have the picture of your car. The judge asks, do you have a receipt for the repairs or two estimates of the cost of the repairs?

If you answer no, it shows that you’re totally unprepared for your trial. Your case will be dismissed because you failed to make out a prima facie case. You lacked an essential element: proof of your damages.

The law recognizes three different burdens of proof, best illustrated by picturing Lady Justice with the scales:

  • Beyond a reasonable doubt means the scale is totally out of balance on your side because you’ve piled up a great deal of credible evidence.

  • Clear and convincing evidence means the scales are substantially tipping over in your direction.

  • Preponderance of the evidence means that the scales are only slightly tipped in your favor, just enough to get the scale out of balance. It’s more likely than not that your presentation of the facts is true.

Most people are familiar with the burden of proof in a criminal case — the standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This does not mean 100 percent certainty. And it doesn’t mean no doubt at all. But it’s the most difficult proof standard recognized in the law.

The person bringing a criminal case has a heavy burden to meet in order to convict someone and send her to jail. The “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard is not used in civil cases, so you don’t have to worry about it in small claims court.

Civil cases occasionally use the “clear and convincing evidence” standard, which is somewhere between by a preponderance of evidence and beyond a reasonable doubt. It’s a higher standard to prove than by a preponderance of evidence but is less stringent than the criminal standard of beyond a reasonable doubt.

Clear and convincing evidence is the standard used in civil cases that may have some criminal implications as well such as a fraud, or a usury based contract claim, that is where the defendant loaned you money at a rate of interest that exceeds the legal limit in your state.

The situations in which clear and convincing evidence is the standard in civil cases are so few that as a practical matter you don’t have to worry about it for most small claims cases.

As a plaintiff, the burden of proof you must meet in a typical civil case is preponderance of the credible evidence. This generally means that it’s more likely than not that the facts are what you claim they are and not those claimed by the defendant. If you don’t meet the burden of proof, the case will be dismissed.

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