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Do civil cases have to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt?

When a driver, passenger or pedestrian is hit by a drunk driver in Virginia, the legal processes that follow often go in two different directions, sometimes simultaneously. The drunk driver is likely to be prosecuted by the criminal justice system, and the accident victim may also pursue a personal injury case in the state's civil court system. There are many key differences between the two systems, but one of the most relevant is the extent to which the case must be proven in court.

It's well-known that in the criminal justice system the prosecution's case must be made "beyond a reasonable doubt." However, the civil justice system, where personal injury and wrongful death cases are handled, does not require the plaintiff's case to be proven to this extent. Rather, a civil case involves a different standard, known as "preponderance of the evidence."

Essentially, in a civil case the burden of proof demands that at least half of the evidence - 50 percent or more - points toward the truth of the plaintiff's claim. After a damaging alcohol-related accident, the central claim is usually that the defendant's negligence caused the accident and the plaintiff's injury. It's important to know that this is a lower burden of proof than the type found in criminal cases. However, this doesn't mean that civil cases are necessarily easier for a plaintiff who has been injured by a drunk driver. Defense tactics can range from questioning a defendant's blood alcohol content to implying the accident victim played some sort of role in causing the accident.

Drunk driving accidents can prove incredibly costly for victims and their families. Medical expenses are sometimes just the beginning, as long-term care and rehabilitation can be a factor if injuries are serious enough. A civil case could help a plaintiff obtain compensation for these unexpected bills after an equally unexpected accident.

Source: FindLaw, "Preponderance of the evidence," accessed Jan. 9, 2014

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